‘Lion’ poses questions around identity

Lion is the true story of Saroo, a five-year-old Indian boy who gets lost on a train, accidentally traveling over a thousand kilometers away from his small hometown.

The train takes him to Calcutta where, unable to speak the local language and uncertain of the name of his own hometown, Saroo cannot return home to his family. The film essentially operates as two different movies. The first half follows young Saroo’s journey, while the second half shows him 20 years later, still attempting to reconnect with his family. It is perhaps surprising that Lion dedicates such a long opening section to young Saroo, especially since Lion is billed as starring Dev Patel, who does not appear until nearly an hour into the film.

The first half of the film is in Hindi and follows Saroo from his hometown to the streets of Calcutta and finally to an orphanage, where he is adopted by an Australian couple. Lion treats this part of the film as backstory and, although it drags on longer than expected, it was the right decision to bolster the storytelling.

The fact that Lion is based on a true story makes the movie successful. The plot might feel like something that was whipped up in a Hollywood laboratory and, if it were not a true story, might come across as cliché. Spending so much time on young Saroo and offering such realistic and gritty shots of Calcutta’s streets gives the film a more human aspect and keeps it from feeling formulaic.

The end of Lion shows footage of the actual characters and settings in which certain events in the film took place. The film takes few liberties, as the characters and settings in the real-life footage look nearly identical to those portrayed in the film. The director successfully emphasizes the truth within the film to capture the full emotional potential of Lion.

Once Lion jumps forward 20 years to an adult Saroo, living in Australia after having been adopted, the film becomes more predictable. And while the emotional payoff at the end is as strong as one might hope, it was not the part of the film that stuck with me most. Lion raises some intriguing questions about the meaning of identity. Many people balance multiple identities, and adult Saroo embodies this to an extreme.

His search to reclaim his lost identity completely consumes him, to the point where one questions if it is even in his best interest for him to do so. Though he can no longer speak Hindi or remember anything about from where he was, Saroo remains chained to his murky past, preventing him from living in the moment. The loss and uncertainty regarding identity that haunt Saroo are more powerful than the film’s ending.

The whole cast delivers strong performances, and the cinematography is solid. Creative decisions, such as showing people from Saroo’s past in his present setting, like a vision, do pay off. Lion cannot help but feel slightly familiar and predictable at times, simply because of its somewhat cliché nature. Nevertheless, this is a film worth seeing, particularly for those intrigued by questions regarding identity.

‘Lion,’ starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, will be showing at Images Cinema until Jan. 26. Photo courtesy of Weinstein Company.