There is a sequence in Lion where Saroo (Dev Patel) and his soon-to-be girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) walk to a party on opposite sides of the street.
Lucy does a wee dance, and Saroo then copies her – the pair thus doing some cute romance as they swap dance moves from across the road that separates them.
The moment is an uncredited homage to Spike Jonze’s short film, How They Get There (USA, 1997), which you can see in full below (for as long as it remains on YouTube).
Given that Lion is a film about a young boy who by accident becomes separated from his family and who ends up being adopted by Australians, and given that the film is based upon a true story, it seems strange to have this extended reference to Jonze’s film included.
For, while Jonze’s is a playful and witty short, Lion seems to be in the business of taking itself very seriously – as perhaps it should do given that it is a film about a topic as weighty as transnational identity, and which is seeking to pick up various awards during this year’s season. The homage, therefore, shifts the film tonally from serious to playful in a way that jars with the what the film otherwise seems to set out to achieve.
So let us say that Saroo and Lucy had seen How They Get There (these characters do supposedly live in the real world, after all, meaning that they may well have done). Surely the inclusion in the film is therefore justified – a kind of audiovisual exchange that could just as easily be the characters bonding via conversation over, say, their love of Aravind Adiga or Powderfinger (also real world figures)?
Well, maybe. But since Lion so clearly adopts this scene from Jonze, it simply feels tired, unimaginative and unoriginal – as if the filmmakers could not themselves come up with anything better than nicking someone else’s idea in order to convey romance. One’s confidence in the rest of the film is undermined: how much more of this film is entirely derivative?
More than this. There is a cinema in the world where such shifts in tone are in fact commonplace, such that they become perhaps even the defining feature of that cinema.
I am of course talking in quite a general sense about Indian cinema, with the Mumbai-based industry known as Bollywood generally functioning as its metonymic figurehead.
Lion is a transnational co-production, as the stated involvement of Australian, American and British monies makes clear above. And yet the film is also largely set in India, with locations including Kolkata and Khandwa, which lies close to Saroo’s home town of Ganesh Talai. What is more, the film also features numerous performances by Indian actors. So, one asks oneself, where is the Indian economic involvement in the film?
Or does the tonal shift marked by the adoption of Jonze’s idea also mark the adoption of ideas (tonal shifts themselves) from Indian cinema, which in turn marks the adoption of Indian cinematic resources for this film – which is a film about the adoption of Indian boys by white Australians?
There are plenty more things to say about Lion, but I would like to limit myself to three things – the first of which relates to How They Get There.
For, in Jonze’s film, things end badly as the male dancer gets run over, with the driver of the car perhaps also dying – and the male dancer’s shoe ending up in a gutter by the side of the road.
Does the reference to this film in Lion, therefore, signal a similar pessimism with regard to Saroo? While the film clearly is about ‘How They Get There,’ are we to believe that Saroo is, as it were, a shoe in a gutter – looking up at the stars that might help him in the developed world? There seems to be no clear analogy, but any way that one looks at it is never far from offensive.
Indeed – to move on to my second point – there is another strange sequence in the film where Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue (Nicole Kidman), explains that when she was 12 she had a vision whereby she saw herself with a ‘brown boy’ – and that this is what drove her not to want to have birth children, but to want to adopt kids herself.
The daughter of an alcoholic, Sue in some senses seems to declare here that Saroo is partially an object that helps her to get over her own traumatic childhood. Which I guess is fair enough, except that this again reduces Saroo to simply a brown boy who may not want to be, but who is indeed the plaything of sorts of white Australians. No wonder that Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), is himself so troubled.
In this way, it seems oddly fitting that Saroo is not, in fact, Saroo’s real name. His infantile tongue could not properly pronounce his name (nor the name of his home town), and so Saroo is the result of the boy (played by Sunny Pawar) trying to say Sheru (meaning lion), and Ganestalay his attempt to say Ganesh Talai – a town that no one could find as a result of this difference.
What a thin thread possibly prevented Saroo from being able to find his way home. Nonetheless, the erasure of his Hindi roots through this ‘error’ does, as mentioned, seem oddly apt through its occultation of Saroo’s origins.
Of course, Saroo is haunted by his past and he does finally discover his origins – so at least we see that he cares for truth and is haunted by his privilege knowing that his mother is a labourer who carries rocks for a living while he enjoys boats and aeroplanes (and visions of his past from a drone – with his discovery of his past enabled in large part by the surveillance technology of Google Earth).
In other words, Lion clearly is a film about worlds separated by technology and in particular transport as a means of defining humans according to their different abilities to travel/move (even if true, it is oddly apt, then, that Saroo’s destiny is changed by his inadvertently being on the wrong train – the great distance that it covers from Khandwa to Kolkata signalling his destiny to be catapulted into a new, more mobile world).
And we are glad that Saroo is saved from this world, even if we see him running and laughing and loving his family in Ganesh Talai. For it is also a world defined by manual labour, paedophilia, child abuse and uncaring authorities. Saroo really is better off, it would seem, in Australia – and his rescue is thus in some senses justified, even if his adoptive mother has dimensions of the would-be White Saviour.
Dev Patel gives an excellent performance as Saroo. The film as a whole is powerful. But as the film ultimately endorses the fast pace of modernity at the expense of the slow pace of those pedestrian labourers who function as the very props upon which this modernity is based (it is the labour of his birth mother that brought Sheru into the world, even if Sue takes credit for raising Saroo), so, too, is the film constructed according to the fast pace of western films.
That is, the film has rapid scenes, often cutting into action and getting the viewer to infer what has happened – rather than allowing the viewer to see events unfold for themselves.
In this sense, we regularly see Saroo/Patel at points of high emotion – but the film in this regard does not show us ‘how they get there.’ That is, we do not see the onset of emotion, the change that takes place – we just see the emotion itself, with the emotion itself thus becoming symbolic, a symbol of emotion, rather than an emotion grounded in the real world of change and becoming.
The film’s decision to rush emotions in this way – to be too busy/in the business of business to want to take us through the complexity of emotion – reflects the privileged speed of the highly technologised First World, where emotions become empty because of their own speed, rather than real because slow and enworlded.
In its form, then, the film undermines what it otherwise would seemingly want to achieve: we want to connect with people across boundaries, but really what we are seeing are power games and the use of other people and their real lives for the purposes of our own entertainment, edification and comfort. This makes for troubling viewing, even if I also was swept up personally in the story that I was seeing.
While Patel seems excellent as Saroo, then, it also seems a shame that he is edited in such a way that we do not really get to see him act. Or rather, his performance is reduced to acting as a result of the editing: here is Saroo unhappy, here is Saroo sad, and so on. To get beyond acting exposed as acting, to get to acting as an embodied performance, we need to see the transitions; we need to see how they get there.
Oddly, such a transition is shown in the film – but by Sheru’s mother, Kamla, when they are reunited. I believe that this moment is performed by Priyanka Bose (she plays Saroo’s mother when he is young; it is unclear whether it is still her but aged via make-up when they finally meet again).
In a few brief moments of screen time, we see Bose carry out an extraordinary performance of recognition and then emotion as she recognises her boy. And yet what plaudits for Bose in the celebration of the film at awards season?
Furthermore, in a few brief instants we here sense a story that we never otherwise got to see – the story of an illiterate labourer whose son has been taken from her in rural India. How much more interesting might that film have been, rather than the troubles that a boy had in discovering his hometown through the use of Google Earth?
That we see a film that privileges the privileged masculine perspective is perhaps profoundly western. If, we wanted to watch a film featuring the female perspective, then we likely have to discover a different cinema – perhaps even the cinema of a place like India, where a masterpiece like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, India, 1957) dares to tell precisely the story of a female labourer struggling to bring up her children in the Indian countryside.
(Much as I tend to enjoy the performances of Casey Affleck, the performance from Bose in Lion reminds me of how Michelle Williams acts Affleck off the screen in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2016, even though she has minimal screen time and even though her big scene is scripted basically to suggest that she still is in love with the man who is largely responsible for the death of her children – i.e. it is a male fantasy-fulfilment.)
(This in turn reminds me that both Lion and Manchester by the Sea continue the trend of films about dead, lost, and otherwise problematised babies and children – as I have written about elsewhere. It is the preoccupying theme of contemporary western cinema.)
Forasmuch as it is well made and enjoyable, then, Lion seems to have adopted various things from various other places not in order to present us with any changed vision of the world, but to replicate the vision of a superior western, technologised, cinematic world – even if this world is built upon the labour of people like Kamla, whose plight remains invisible.
How we got here – to such a world that seemingly is made up of different worlds – is hidden.
And yet it might be the most important (hi)story for us all to learn.