I’ve been waiting for Lion. I am a big fan of the child-of-two-nations theme in narrative, and this film has been under lots of Oscar buzz recently.This film initially only screened in limited cinemas, but since the Oscar nominations, screenings have been more widespread across the country. I had a chance watching it after watching Paterson in a cinema in downtown Seattle. The cinema was packed and I can see lots of fellow Asians watching this movie with me (compared to the predominantly white audience of Paterson). I can see why – it puts an Asian front and center. (Dev Patel! There’s this parody poster that proposes Slumdog Got Hot as the alternate title of Lion. Well, damn sure he got hot.) That’s one of the reasons why I get so excited about Lion.
This is a story about Saroo Brierley (Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel) who got separated from his brother after boarding in an unmanned train and ending up thousands of kilometers away from home. Through a string of events, he got adopted by John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), an Australian couple, and begins his new life in Australia. Twenty years pass and he works on an ambitious project to find his family in India.
Based on my viewing experiences, these are usually characteristics surrounding an Oscar bait film:
- Produced by The Weinstein Company
- Based on a true story
- Features a strong performance by the lead actor
- Excessive backstory
I would say that this film could be categorized into generic Oscar bait. It embodies the criteria I outlined above. That being said, a set of criteria is just a set of criteria and cannot be used to judge a film. I think that a biopic that seems didactic (preachy) in its delivery would not be enjoyable, as I would feel like reading a history book rather than watching a film; it also means that the creators of the film doesn’t use the audiovisual platform as effectively as they should’ve done. An Oscar bait biopic has several levels of didactic-ness, and I would say Lion is pretty didactic. What doesn’t make it didactic, though, is the humanity presented onscreen. The character of Saroo is so masterfully explored, yet, at the compromise of the supporting characters. I love how Saroo’s character development is presented here, but I don’t like how Rooney Mara’s Lucy (Saroo’s girlfriend) only acts as a”decoration” to Saroo’s character. Rooney Mara’s talents were criminally underused, and if we were to remove her character, the story would turn out quite alright. What differs this to other Oscar baits is also the very pretty cinematography. Lion succeeded to capture the disorientation of the lost little Saroo in Calcutta, exploring its bustling cityscapes and making it look big to a small lost boy. Saroo’s life looks blatantly different through the screen’s different portrayals of India and Australia. Yet, I wouldn’t consider this a groundbreaking film. It fills the cliché’d mold of Oscar-made biopics, and because of that – and the very annoying ending explanation of where-are-they-now that’s supposed to inspire but falls into the didactic realm – it doesn’t resonate that much to me after the screening.
Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) doing 👏 his 👏 own 👏 damn 👏 work
However, this film made me cry. And I cried because Dev Patel managed to salvage this almost-generic-film with his incredible acting. Dev Patel is nominated for an Oscar for the first time for this role, yet his screentime is not enough for him to be nominated in the Lead Actor category. Instead, he got nominated in the Supporting Actor category, where he faces Mahershala Ali, a very tough competitor. I’ve seen Moonlight (and I reviewed it here), and I admit that Ali’s acting is amazing, and he could really give life and turn a character written through pen-and-paper (or a screenwriting app) into a fleshed-out character you would meet in your local general store. If Patel were to be nominated in the Lead Actor category, I would campaign for him so hard. So hard. He can bring the character of Saroo to life and explore the nooks and crannies of his character, and also embody his internal conflict and show it on screen. What I’m most amazed of is Patel’s capability to make his emotions resonate to the audience. Not only did he cried, but I cried as well. I saw this kind of performance in Emma Stone’s Mia from La La Land, and I think that this is one of the marks of a good actor. Patel contributes most of the emotional weight of Lion and he is indeed the reason why I would recommend this film. Also, not forgetting to mention Sunny Pawar, Patel’s other half in helping Saroo come to life onscreen. I love his bustling-with-life performance and how he can portray being so small amongst the great Indian expanse. His emotion radiates. Through his performance, not only did he act, but he brings us along with Saroo’s journey.
Aside of the generic mold of this film, I would like to say that this is an important story to tell in our time and age. Heroic biopics about white figures have been told countless of times, and even international audiences know about the conflicts of a white man better than other races and nationalities in the world (except for their own nationalities). There have been numerous stories about white men and how, say, 9/11 or the Iraq War affects them, but we don’t often see stories about how the other side are impacted by those events: Western Asian Muslims impacted by the racial profiling while traveling and war crimes happening in their country. Saroo’s story is about finding his own identity and getting in touch with his home country. This story is so, so important with the advent of the new American executive order and unnecessary controversy against immigration, and also the fact that we don’t often see the struggles of immigrants portrayed on screen without a white saviour helping them. And, damn, Saroo did the dirty work all by himself. Garth Davis has told a lesser known story that will move your heart, and this story will widen your perspective on immigrants. 2016 has given us cinematically-delivered stories from different cultural perspectives, and I hope that there will be much more films like this in the future. We’re all human after all, and we have stories in all of us, and audiences need to hear interesting stories from varying backgrounds. And it’s about damn time.