The Bengal Lion

Dev Patel  in a scene from the Australian film Lion

I hate to admit it but I shed tears while watching the new film Australian film Lion. I’ve always hating crying at the movies ever since I was kid and used to laugh at my mum when she cried at the drop of a hat in any emotional scene of a movie, no matter how silly the premise. “Stop it, you” she would say to me while drying her tears, her anger at me betrayed by a smile. Mum has been dead ten years now but I remembered her and her tears as I watched the first meeting of a man and his mother in 25 years at the end of Lion. I was annoyed at myself, knowing full well my emotions were being played on by the filmmakers but like my own mother all those years ago, I could not help myself. My eyes are capable of betraying me again at the memory the following morning.

Lion tells an incredible true story and it has been turned into one of the best Australian films in years. Saroo Brierley was born in 1981 in a small village near the Central Indian city of Khandwa. His father had left home and the desperately poor family relied on the money his mother made from carrying rocks from a quarry. Saroo’s older brother Guddu supplemented their income by stealing coal from trains to sell for food and would take the five-year-old Saroo with him on adventures. One night Guddu and Saroo travel to a nearby city on a train where Guddu earned money working as a sweeper. The pair get separated and Saroo falls asleep on a train. When he wakes up his brother is gone and the train was moving.

Saroo could not escape from an empty locked cabin and his calls for help at stations were unheeded. After two days the train ended up in faraway Calcutta – 1500km from Khandwa. Saroo escapes into the station throng but is lost in a strange city where no one speaks his native Hindi. Sleeping rough, he narrowly avoids being kidnapped at night into child slavery and according to the film he meets a woman who befriends him and takes him home (in real life it was a male railway worker) .

But Saroo becomes suspicious of her intentions when she invites a man over who checks him out and he distrusts their promises to help him find his family. Saroo escapes once more and befriends a man, who takes him to the police station. The illiterate Saroo tells police he from “Ganatelay” but no one knows a place of that name.

Saroo is placed in an orphanage but ads in the Calcutta paper fail to locate his family. Eventually he agrees to be adopted by an Australian couple and he flies alone to Tasmania, where the Brierley couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham take him home. They fill his life with love so he is happy though is affected by a second Indian adoption into the family a year later. The second boy is less happy and practises self harm but they get on with life regardless.

The timeframe moves forward from the late 1980s to 2008 when Saroo Brierley is now an Australianised young man, played by Dev Patel. Saroo moves from Tasmania to Melbourne to learn hotel management and becomes involved with an American student (Rooney Mara). They are invited to a meal at the house of an Indian couple where the sight of traditional Indian food stirs long hidden memories in Saroo. He tells them his story of travelling two days on a train to Calcutta and all he can remember is a train station with a water tank. Someone suggests he work out how fast Indian trains travelled in the 1980s and to use Google Earth to find his home.

It was a massive undertaking but it was a search that obsessed Saroo. Working out in a 1500km radius from Calcutta he finally found landmarks in Google earth that matched his childhood memories: a waterfall where he played as a boy, the quarry where his mother worked, a train station with a water tower and a town called Ganesh Talai. This was his home town he garbled as “Ganatelay”. From memory he followed the route to where he believed his house was and knew he had found his home.

In 2013 Saroo flew to Ganesh Talai. To his disappointment the old house was long abandoned and turned into an animal compound. With his Hindi long forgotten, he had difficulty making people understand his quest. Finally he told an English-speaking local his story and the man took him to meet an old woman. It was Saroo’s mother, who instantly recognised her son. The proof was a bump on the head from a long-forgotten accident when he was run over by a bike while carrying a watermelon and the melon smashed against his head.

After many tears of happiness, Saroo asks about his older brother Guddu. He was dead, he was told. There were tears of sadness soon replaced with more tears of joy when his mother told him a younger sister was still alive. The film closes with the real Saroo bring his Tasmanian mother to India to see his Indian mother. The end credits tell three important facts. Firstly Guddu died the night they went missing, after being struck by a train. Secondly Saroo’s mother never gave up hope of finding her other boy and deliberately stayed in the same village so she would be easy to find. Lastly, Seroo found out that not only did he pronounce the name of the town wrong, he also pronounced his own name wrong. He was Sheru, not Saroo. In Hindi Sheru means Lion.

The New Yorker was right to say the second half of the film was a slow and muted affair after “the Dickensian punch of the first” but Saroo’s disappearance and rediscovery remains remarkable. It also throws necessary light on 90,000 children who go missing in India each year, something authorities ignore, with officials complicit in the problem. According to children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan 10 times more are trafficked, and forced to beg or work in farms, factories and homes, or sold for sex and marriage. Thousands of innocent young lives are destroyed every year for profit.



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