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Going home, against all odds
A POVERTY-STRICKEN five-year-old in rural India follows his brother on a scavenging mission one evening in 1986 and winds up lost and alone, 1,600 kilometres and one mistaken train journey later.
Unable to communicate in the local dialect and with only a rough idea of how to pronounce the name of his village, what are the chances of finding his way home?
None, as it happens.
But in an unbelievable turn of events 25 years later, that boy - now living in Australia and fuelled by an identity crisis - manages to retrace his steps (thanks to Google Earth) and reconnect with his family. Lion is the based-on-a-true-story of Saroo Brierley and his incredible journey.
The film, directed by Garth Davis, written by Luke Davies and based on Brierley's book A Long Way Home, is a mostly-accurate retelling of how the kid survives his initial ordeal, lives on the streets of Kolkata for months and then ends up in a home for lost children, before being adopted by an Australian couple.
The film's first hour introduces us to the simple lives led by Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) as they eke out a meagre existence, alternately playing in nearby fields, helping single mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) collect construction stones in a quarry or tending to their infant sister. On most days, they walk along the train tracks to their local station in search of coins or items they can exchange for food.
It helps that they have each other - until one night when they don't. Too tired to keep his brother company after they travel to a station some distance from home, Saroo falls asleep on a platform bench.
When Guddu fails to return, Saroo looks for him on a train and is accidentally trapped inside an empty carriage that ends up in Kolkata two days later.
He endures some harrowing experiences on the streets, escaping kidnapping or worse on several occasions until a kind soul brings him to a police station to make a report. The authorities are unable to locate his family, so Saroo is sent to a home and later put up for adoption.
The next phase of his life starts in Tasmania when John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopt him (as well as another Indian child a year later) and provide him with the kind of education and upbringing that would have been previously unimaginable.
Fast-forward 20 years and a grown-up Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is Aussie in many respects - sporty, outgoing and with a girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) - except of course there's an emotional void where his biological family used to be, and he's desperate to find them.
He's haunted by memories of a distant world, plagued by a sense of loss and visited regularly by visions of Guddu. "I have to find home," he tells Lucy.
Google Earth gives him a fighting chance to do so. Saroo spends countless hours at his computer, always searching, searching. It becomes an obsession and drives a wedge between him and his life in Australia, nearly destroying his family there in the process. But he's determined to succeed.
Lion may be overly melodramatic in parts and the second half of the film is substantially weaker than the first, but it's a compelling tale that proves, against all odds, that you can go home after all.