Home is more than four walls and a roof. It's more than where you sleep, eat, wash your hair. There's something spiritual about home, something impossible to define yet impossible to replace. And even when you leave that home, a bit of it follows you wherever you go.
For 5-year-old Saroo, home isn't so much a place as a collection of people. His mother. His older brother, Guddu. His tiny baby sister. They make up Saroo's whole life, part of everything he knows. Every day he and Guddu dive into a broader world beyond, that of rural India, stealing bits of coal to sell for bits of milk. Every night he comes home for a smile, a laugh, a bit of hurried dinner before his mother and brother dive back into the dark, working to provide for the family.
One night, like most nights, Saroo begs his brother to let him come along. Guddu, like most nights, refuses.
"You're too small to lift bales,"
"I can lift anything," Saroo protests. He hoists a bicycle off the ground to prove it, his tiny biceps straining at the effort.
Guddu relents. "OK, fine," he says. And so they tromp off into the night. Before long, Guddu's carrying little Saroo in his arms, the little boy too tired to stay awake. When the two boys arrive at their town's small train depot, Guddu gently places the boy on a bench, realizing that it was a mistake to bring him along. Guddu will go on alone.
"You wait here," Guddu tells Saroo, the little boy's eyelids weighted with sleep. "You don't go anywhere."
Saroo sleeps. When he wakes up, it's the dead of night and the depot is deserted. "Guddu!" Saroo calls. He begins to wander. He slinks onto a train, where long years of poverty have taught him to hunt under seats for loose change, crusts of bread, anything that might be of use. But the work is tiring and tedious. Soon, Saroo slumps into another seat and dozes off again.
When he wakes up, the little boy feels the train move and rock beneath him. He looks out the window, sees the green and brown of India zipping past.
Panic. Terror. Saroo screams for Guddu, for Mum. They don't answer. No one does. The train is decommissioned, deserted. He's alone. And this huge, metallic snake slithers through the countryside, carrying him farther and farther away from home.
Finally, the snake slides into Calcutta. Saroo's a thousand miles from where he started, though he can't know that. He begins asking for help. But when people ask him his mother's name, he only knows "Mum." When he tells them where he thinks he's from—Ganestalay—no one has ever heard of it. He doesn't even know what direction he came from, what train he took. Saroo is lost, hopelessly lost, in a land of strangers who care very little about the fate of a 5-year-old boy.
Home is more than a place. It's people, and Saroo has lost all that home is.
Saroo may not be able to, as he brags, lift everything. But what he lacks in stature and toughness, he more than makes up in emotional durability. Saroo survives his first night in Calcutta … and many, many nights afterward. Along the way, he gets a bit of help to find a better place—first from a kindly man at a café, who notices the urchin mimicking his every move; then from a skilled care worker, who goes on to place Saroo with Australians John and Sue Brierley.
The Brierleys adopt Saroo and give him a new home, one filled with televisions and refrigerators and even a boat. They care deeply for Saroo as well as their other adopted child, Mantosh. But While Mantosh is a troubled boy (who grows into a troubled man), Saroo returns his new family's love and becomes a source of constant pride.
"From the moment you came into our lives, you were all that we could've hoped for," says Sue.
But when a now-adult Saroo goes off to a multinational hotel management school, he begins to feel the insistent, unquenchable pull of his birth home—to find his mother and brother again. And given the circumstances in which he left them, Saroo's search is completely understandable.
[Spoiler Warning] But Saroo keeps his search secret from his adoptive parents. He later says he hid it from them because he didn't want them to feel as though he was "ungrateful," or that he didn't love them as much as his birth family. But when he does eventually tell them, they're incredibly supportive. "I really hope she's there," Sue tells Saroo. "She needs to see how beautiful you are."
India is a place of incredibly diverse spiritual beliefs. In Saroo's hometown, we hear what sounds like an Islamic call to prayer. In Calcutta, we see evidence of Hinduism.
Little Saroo stumbles across a Hindu idol surrounded by offerings. He clasps his hands in front of the idol, as if asking for pre-emptive forgiveness, and takes a bit of food left before the idol. People pray in temples, and Saroo runs across what almost seems like a religiously tinged opium den, where men surrounded by candles seem to be either in a stupor or asleep. He's introduced to a man named Rama, who clarifies that he's "not the god." (Rama is revered as the seventh avatar, or incarnation, of the Hindu god Vishnu.)
While the religious affiliation of the Brierleys is never explicitly detailed, there are occasional hints that Saroo's adoptive parents are Christians. Sue talks about how "blessed" their family has been. And she talks about a "vision" of seeing a "brown-skinned child" across a field when she was 12. "That was the first time in my life that I felt something good," she says. "I felt good. And I knew it was guiding me, and I knew it was going to be fine."
A deceased Indian child is said to be "with God."
As an adult, Saroo meets a fellow hotel-management student named Lucy, with whom he has a sexual relationship. They're shown kissing and in bed together, clearly in a prelude to sex. It's suggested that they're both unclothed in their bedtime interludes, though nothing critical is shown. Saroo and Lucy appear to live together for a time, and he takes her home to meet his parents.
The disturbing threat of sexual trafficking lurks throughout Saroo's childhood. After he gets lost, he's seemingly befriended by a young woman who tells him she's going to introduce him to Rama. "He is a very good man," the woman assures him. "He helps everyone. He will help you, too." When Rama comes, he seems nice enough, even as he stares at the boy and asks him to lie down with him for a moment. "I want to take you to a really nice place," he promises, "And from there we're going to look for your Mum." But when he's alone with the woman, Rama says instead, "You've done well. He's exactly what they're looking for." Saroo becomes suspicious and runs away.
In an orphanage later, a mentally ill boy, who's terrified, gets dragged away by guards in the middle of the night. Why? It's unclear, but the boy seems to know and fear what's coming, and I wonder whether perhaps his troubles stem from what happens during these midnight abductions.
We sometimes see people, both adults and children, try to harm themselves, hitting their own heads against walls or on tables or with their own fists. Saroo's adoptive brother, Mantosh, throws a violent fit his first day with the Brierleys. And we get a sense that Mantosh's childhood was filled with similar tantrums, perhaps brought on by his own past demons.
Street urchins are roughly rounded up by security guards. Saroo almost gets hit by a bus. We hear about a child who was struck by a train.
Crude or Profane Language
We hear one misuse of God's name.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mantosh appears to be a drug addict. Sue frets at one point that after finishing a temporary job, Mantosh will be "flush with cash" and "back on the hard stuff."
People smoke cigarettes. Characters drink wine, champagne and beer in various scenes. We learn that Sue's father was an alcoholic.
Other Negative Elements
Little Saroo and Guddu steal to help feed their family.
There are also some difficult, conflicting messages offered about the adoption of people like Saroo—messages that may bother some viewers. But those messages are used to illustrate the much more positive message that Lion eventually lands on, which I'll unpack more below.
What is home? What is family? These are questions that nearly tear Saroo apart. He loves his Australian parents, and he's deeply grateful for everything they've given him. But memories of his past—the mother and brother that he mistakenly, unwillingly left—pull at him incessantly.
Saroo imagines the fear and horror they must've felt when he disappeared, the sadness that perhaps they experienced every day he wasn't with them. He wonders whether that home—the home he left in India—might be his real home after all. He wonders if Guddu, not the troubled Mantosh, is his real brother. And as much as he loves his Australian mother and father, as grateful he feels toward them for all they've given him, he wonders whether his relationship with them is simply a substitute for the bond Sue and John longed for with the biological children they didn't have.
"I'm sorry you couldn't have your own kids," Saroo one day blurts.
"What are you saying?" Sue asks, in disbelief and perhaps a hint of horror.
"We weren't blank pages, were we?" Saroo says. "You weren't just adopting us, but our pasts as well. I feel like we're killing you."
"I could've had kids," Sue reveals. "We chose not to have kids. … We wanted the two of you. That's what we wanted. We wanted the two of you in our lives."
Saroo woefully, almost tragically, misunderstands the nature of adoption—the beautiful bond between mother and child, biological or adopted. Saroo thinks Sue and John saw him as a bargain-basement substitute for a "real" son. And for a while, he sees Sue and John as substitutes—gracious, wonderful substitutes, perhaps, but substitutes all the same—for his "real" mother.
But the concept of home and family isn't something solely based on blood, Lion shows us. It's about care and memory and intentionality and, most of all, love. And love is something that the Brierelys shower upon Saroo—even though he doesn't fully comprehend their motive for doing so.
Though the film doesn't connect the dots between the Brierleys' affection-filled adoption of Saroo and God, the jump isn't a big one to make. Whether parents are able to have their own children or not is beside the point: Adoption is never a backup plan. Rather, adoption is God's plan—a plan to bring people together in a sacred collection … a collection we call home.
Lion is a gripping, moving, inspiring film that's high in heart and relatively low in content. While there are moments of sexuality, tension and sometimes troubling family relations, the movie's characters find themselves and each other. And, in so doing, they inspire those who watch their stories unfold—especially Saroo's lionhearted journey.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Dev Patel as Saroo; Rooney Mara as Lucy; Sunny Pawar as young Saroo; Abhishek Bharate as Guddu; Priyanka Bose as Kamla; Nicole Kidman as Sue Brierley; David Wenham as John Brierley; Divian Ladwa as Mantosh
Garth Davis ( )
The Weinstein Company
December 25, 2016
April 11, 2017