Lion: From Personal Memoir to the Big Screen

The memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, first published in 2014, has officially changed its name to Lion. This may well be a metaphor for its author. Only a change in the name, but everything inside remains intact. From a child lost on the streets in Calcutta, India, to a man grown up in Hobart, Tasmania, Saroo remains who he is. He writes in his memoir: “I now have two families, not two identities. I am Saroo Brierley.”

lion-movie-tie-in-edition

Lion (previously titled A Long Way Home) the memoir by Saroo Brierley

5 year-old Saroo was lost in a Calcutta (now Kolkata) train station, almost a thousand miles away from his home in a small village, Ganesh Talai. With no language (a different dialect), not clear of the name of the place he calls home (mispronounced by him as “Ginestlay”) or even his own last name, Saroo is utterly alone and helpless. Living dangerously on the streets of Calcutta for some weeks, he was picked up and sent to a youth detention centre, which was only a tiny bit safer from the streets. Subsequently Saroo was sent to an orphanage, Nava Jeevan (“new life”), run by the benevolent Mrs. Sood. There she arranged for his adoption by a loving Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley.

That could have been the happy ending of a tumultuous experience for Saroo, as he grew up in calm and beautiful Hobart, Tasmania, well adjusted and dearly loved by his adoptive parents. But for twenty-five years, Saroo has not forgotten his first home. As he grew, he was all the more tormented by the memory of his birth mother, and the brothers and sisters who had shared the first five years of his life. An important message he has always wanted to convey to them is that he’s ok, and that they need not worry about him. For years he has been haunted by the thoughts that his mother and older brother Guddu must have been devastated with losing him without a trace, as it was Guddu who had left him alone on a bench at the train station near his home, telling him to stay put as Saroo was too sleepy to tag along on that fateful night.

With the help of Google Earth twenty years later, and vague memories of the physical features of his home surrounding, Saroo finally located his village and flew back to India to search for his mother. They reunited a few doors down from his old home, as his mother had persisted all these years to not move away but stay there to wait for him, hoping against hope that her son would come back to her. The photo inserts in the book add even more poignancy as we see the Brierleys meet Saroo’s birth mother Kamla in India.

Utterly moving, authentic, genuine and real. While Slumdog Millionaire may be entertaining and eye-opening for those of us who are not familiar with Indian’s millions of children living on the streets, Lion is a true portrayal of one lost child, determined to find his way back home twenty-five years later across the oceans.

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Lion the Movie

Is the movie any good? For those who think it’s always the book that’s better, here’s my answer: Yes, very good. Premiered at TIFF16 last September, Lion has since garnered awards and nominations, including young Sunny Pawar, his debut performance as an actor. Kudos to all those involved in transporting this story from a personal memoir onto the big screen for international viewers. If not for the movie, even though it has been reported in India and Australia, I for one in North America would not have known about this real life miracle.

So, hats off to Australian director Garth Davis, screenwriter, the acclaimed Australian  poet/writer Luke Davies, and the cast, Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008) as the adult, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham the adoptive parents, Rooney Mara the girlfriend, and the cast of Saroo’s Indian family. They have delivered an authentic and moving real-life story.

Basically structured into three parts, the first focuses on five year-old Saroo, living in poverty but is loved by his mother and siblings. One night he pleads with his older brother Guddu to go with him to his night work, salvaging garbage left on trains. After reaching the closest station from his home village, Saroo is too tired, so he stays behind sleeping on a bench to wait for Guddu. He wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself all alone. He gets on one of the parked train to look for Guddu but falls asleep again in there. He wakes to his horror as he finds he is being transported in the speeding train further and further away from his home.

Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, 2012; Bright Star, 2009) uses his camera effectively showing some haunting images, a horrified 5 year-old, alone on a train speeding to the unknown. Throughout the film as well, he tells the story poignantly with his camera. Scores composed by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran add power in eliciting emotions, taking us closely with Saroo on his incredulous life journey.

Second part we see Saroo grown up in Australia, having a good relationship with his adopting parents but troubled nonetheless by his past. The frustration of having only vague memories of the physical features of the train station near his home makes it an impossible task to search for an unknown town in the vast land of India. Thanks to Google Earth and his unyielding perseverance, the adult Saroo was rewarded with a dream come true.

While the physical locales might be distant and vague, memories of his childhood experiences are lucid and close. In the second part, the director and screenwriter have deftly inserted Saroo’s memories of his childhood days in India, enriching the screen story of his intimate relationships with his family. These inclusions add to the texture and are placed aptly to enhance the continuity of the child and the man. Very effective.

I welcome the quiet and slower pace in Part Two, and appreciate Patel’s portrayal of inner turmoils. Kidman has done an amiable job as the adoptive mother trying to hold the family together, with two Indian boys, now grown men, both deeply troubled by their past in different ways. If Part One is about the outward dangers of a lost child, Part Two illustrates the internal turmoils one still wages into adulthood.

Part three is that triumphant and exhilarating reunion. How we want to see a happy ending by then. Although we know that is forthcoming, it is still exciting and gratifying to embrace the uplifting end. Lion is a story well told cinematically, and worth every minute of a viewer’s attention. Do wait till the very end before you leave the theatre, the photos at the closing credits make a beautiful wrap. And why the title Lion? That’s for you to find out.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

for both Book and Movie

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Slumdog Millionaire

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox (2013): A Meal that Binds

The Lunchbox premiered at Cannes last year. Since then, it had appeared in many other international film festivals, nabbing nominations and wins. I missed it at TIFF last September, so am glad I’ve the chance to watch it in the theatre recently. Here’s my review published in the May 18 issue of Asian American Press, a weekly newspaper based in Minneapolis, MN. That’s right, folks, it’s globalization.

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The Lunchbox Movie Poster

The lunchbox, dabba, is a stackable unit of four or five round metal cans fastened by straps on the side that flip up to attach to a handle on top. Every day in Mumbai, India, five thousand dabbawallahs, or lunchbox deliverymen, would fetch the dabbas from homes after housewives have filled them with hot food and deliver the tiffin to their husbands in their offices. After lunch, they would return the empty dabbas back to each home.

In Mumbai alone, there are five thousands dabbawallahs, many of them illiterate. For one hundred and twenty years, they carry dozens of dabbas on their bicycles, negotiate the mass of humanity and impossible street traffic and railways to bring office workers a hot meal from home, or from dabba preparation outlets. Harvard University had studied their inexplicable coding and delivery system. Their finding: only one in a million of these dabbas would ever get lost.

dabbawallah

If you think the title is too mundane for a movie, then just focus on that one-in-a million lost lunchbox. It is picked up from a young housewife, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), and delivered to the wrong recipient, Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan, Life of Pi, 2012), a retiring office worker who has been on the job for thirty-five years. Thus begins the exchange of short notes then letters placed inside these tiffin cans, two strangers who are socially worlds apart, but joined together by a savory meal.

The veteran actor Irrfan Khan won Best Actor at the 8th Asian Film Awards in March this year for his role in The Lunchbox, adding to his several other wins for the film. His subtle and nuanced performance requires no dialogues. Indeed, both Saajan and Ila have not shared a frame together in the movie. I would not so much call this a romantic comedy as their relationship is purely platonic. The romance could well be the ideals and dreams they stir up in each other’s mind through the exchange of written notes. If there is anything comedic it comes as finding a listening ear, a slight relief from the mundane and inescapable in life.

It is interesting to watch how writer/director Ritesh Batra reveals to us the dabba as a metaphor. Like the stackable cans, the story is multi-layered. It touches on marriage, human connections, memories, and dreams. From the mass of humanity, we focus on two individuals striving to find meaning in their daily existence. Like the fastener that strap tight the cans of the dabba, Ila is caught in a loveless marriage with her husband Rajeev (Nakul Vaid), and the aging Saajan is bound by memories of his late wife.

Ila prepares lunch

The film begins with Ila’s attempt to make a delicious meal for her husband Rajeev to win back his heart through his stomach, an advice from an upstairs neighbor Ila calls Auntie (Bharati Achrekar). Ila communicates with Auntie by talking out of her kitchen window. Herein lies the subtle humor of the movie. We do not see Auntie, except just hear her voice. She is like an invisible adviser to Ila’s love life. Poignantly, Auntie herself has been taking care of her own husband, Uncle, who is bedridden and in a comatose state for fifteen years. If life is a bondage like the dabba, Auntie doesn’t show it a bit from her cheerful voice.

Ila’s delicious meals soon get through to the heart of Saajan, the mistaken recipient. Saajan lives alone, and seems to be heading straight to even more meaningless days in his retirement. The note exchanges gradually break through his isolation. Further, albeit reluctantly, he has to train his replacement at work, the young and enthusiastic Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Now this is one lively character that not only offers a humorous foil to the withdrawn Saajan, but like Auntie, Shaikh is optimistic about life, even though he has grown up an orphan. Soon, Shaikh has broken down the barrier with Saajan and the two establish a kind of father/son relationship.

Saajan & Shaikh

With The Lunchbox, his debut feature, Batra has won several screenplay and directing awards. He is definitely one promising filmmaker to watch. His approach here is naturalistic. Shooting on location in Mumbai, the camera captures realistic, ethnographic street scenes and the mass on public transits, telling this Mumbai story in situ. Through the handwritten notes hidden in the mundane dabba, delivered by a traditional human service, the film vividly shows us that even in our day of emails and instant messaging, the route to connect is still through the human heart.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples 

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Related Movie Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Life of Pi (2012): The Magical 3D Experience

English Vinglish (2012)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

The Namesake (2006): Movie Review

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English Vinglish (2012)

If The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is from the outside looking in, then English Vinglish is the reverse shot, bringing us a point of view from the inside looking out.

Writer-director Gauri Shinde gleaned from her real life experiences to craft this delightful dramedy that is rooted in human miscommunication, but speaks much more. The film is one of the Gala Presentations at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

The legendary Bollywood star Sridevi comes back to the big screen after a 15 years hiatus to play Shashi, a devoted wife and mother in a modern, middle-class family in Pune, India. She is a lively, capable woman, a good cook who runs her own catering business, her specialty the ladoos, sweet golden balls of dainty delights. But she has to struggle with one major insecurity: she knows little English. Well, you may think, what’s the big deal. But with English recognized as the lingua franca by those living in a former British colony, and a patriarchal society, Shashi as a woman with no English sorely feels disadvantaged, even within her own family.

Her daughter teases her for her pronunciation, even her preschooler. She shies away from parent-teacher interviews, for her daughter goes to an English-speaking school. No matter how devoted a wife she tries to be, she feels the gap between herself and her husband (Adil Hussain, Life of Pi, 2012; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2012), who is proficient in English and thus becomes her spokesman in social situations.

“She’s born to make ladoos,” her husband’s intended praise of her cooking skills only reflects the confining social reality in which she finds herself. Not knowing English makes her feel subservient, without a voice.

The tipping point comes when Shashi’s niece is getting married in New York City. She has to go on her own to help her prepare for the wedding. Her family will travel later. An Indian woman in a sari on her first international flight alone, Shashi is understandably timid and insecure. But a friendly and helpful gentleman who sits beside her eases her anxiety. That role is aptly played by the veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan (Watch for him in The Great Gatsby, 2013)

A funny and quite original scene comes when this helpful gentleman suggests they watch the same in-flight movie, and he be her interpreter. Only he wears the headphone, and translates the dialogues out loud from English to Hindi for Shashi to hear, in a voice that’s animated and true-to-life, sound effects included. Here’s the rub… the movie is an action thriller of terrorists committing violence with guns and bombs. Other passengers trying to sleep have to shush him, short of subduing him for uttering bomb and death threats.

New York City, the place where one can transform oneself in a surprising way. Shashi has her first major language mishap in a coffee shop. Turning insult into courage, she enrolls in an English language class. The camaraderie of fellow learners lowers her guard and builds up her confidence. In a few short weeks, she has not only gained some mastery of the language but supportive friendship, with one being more intimately intended.

Shashi’s vindication comes at the wedding of her niece. Her husband and children have arrived for the occasion, not knowing her secret English lessons. In front of all the guests, Shashi is asked to make a speech to the newlyweds. While her husband tries to deflect the embarrassment and excuses her for lack of English, Shashi stands up and uses her new found voice to urge the bride and groom to value equality and treat each other with respect, a heartfelt speech well intended for her husband, and a lesson that brings tears of remorse to her daughter. This is one of the most moving wedding speeches in films I’ve seen. In case you’re interested, another memorable one is Dustin Hoffman’s at his daughter’s wedding in Last Chance Harvey (2008).

The 130 minute movie could benefit from keener editing, but the charming Sridevi carries it through with style and grace. It is a joy to watch her even amidst her insecurities, for she has won my heart with her quiet determination to overcome the odds, her strength of character shines through beautifully.

The movie offers a variety of entertainment, albeit not without some contrived moments. It is a full pack of heartwarming comedy, melodrama, cultural mishaps, the ESL classroom, Bollywood style music and dance numbers, but above all, reality. The film has brought to the forefront children showing disrespect for a parent with no English. This could be an issue particularly among immigrant families. Such a portrayal could well be indicative of society at large. Shashi has demonstrated that language does not define who she is, nor should it be the condition of respect and meaningful relationships.

The fact that we in North America can thoroughly enjoy a Hindi film, no doubt by reading English subtitles, could only mean that we can cross the language barrier to understand each other and appreciate different points of view. English may be the lingua franca in certain parts of the world, but it is compassion that joins us. What better way than to be entertained as we go about learning other perspectives?

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Other posts you might like:

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Midnight’s Children Film Adaptation

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Book One

CLICK HERE to read my Movie Review of Midnight’s Children

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In his introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie writes:

In the West people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.

I admit, when I started reading Midnight’s Children, I was frustrated. I knew I just couldn’t read it purely as a fantasy. Why, these are real dates in history, important events, the World Wars, the Mahatma’s call for an independent India with non-violent means, the separation of India and Pakistan along religious lines… There must be more, I told myself. I knew I could never read it as an insider, but I could at least peek through the fences, and get a glimpse of what’s going on inside.

And so I did. I searched for background info and author interviews, both online and off. As a result, my reading pleasure is enhanced after I found out how realistic the novel is. Personal happenings actually correspond with important historical events, not unlike the movie Forrest Gump, little people tossed in the currents of history.

Rushdie in an interview noted that instead of using an Austenesque way to tell his story by focusing on the details and the minute, he chose to adopt a Dickensian approach, placing his characters on a macro, societal canvas. As a result, we have a monumental epic. Mind you, he just wanted to write a novel about childhood, he said.

The narrator, Saleem Sinai, started with his Grandfather Aadam Aziz in 1915, thirty-two years before India’s independence. The young doctor examined his patient and future wife Naseem through a perforated sheet a bit at a time, under the close supervision of her cautious father. When at last she complained of a headache, he finally could see her face, “on the day the World War ended.” It’s pure humor also, and I’ve enjoyed Rushdie’s free wheeling brush strokes.

But often the comical may just serve to bring out more poignantly a sombre reality. When I first read the ‘Mercurochrome’ chapter, it didn’t hit me at all. Later, I read about the atrocity that had actually happened on April 13th, 1919, the Amritsar massacre. British Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer ordered Marshal Law regulations, banning all assemblies. A large crowd defied his orders and started converging in the compound Jallianwala Bagh for a peaceful protest. Dyer marched fifty riflemen up and ordered them to shoot at the crowd indiscriminately, men, women children.

They have fired a total of one thousand six hundred and fifty rounds into the unarmed crowd. Of these, one thousand five hundred and sixteen have found their mark… ‘Good shooting,’ Dyer tells his men, ‘We have done a jolly good thing.’ (p. 34)

A few days ago, Aadam helped the wounded on the streets and got Mercurochrome all over his white shirt, and had to explain to wife Naseem the red stains were not blood. Now on this fateful day, Naseem assumed the red was Mercurochrome again, but was told, “it’s blood,” and she fainted.

The relevance of the perforated sheet reemerges in the next generation when Amina Sinai, Saleem’s mother, has to learn to love her husband Ahmed Sinai one fragment at a time:

 ‘Who, after all,’ she reasoned privately, ‘ever truly knows another human being completely?’

The last two chapters ‘Methwold’ and ‘Tick, Tock’ strike a chord in me. Why, I’m not totally an outsider after all. For the first fifteen years of my life, I was a colonial. I was born and grew up in the then British colony of Hong Kong. So reading Book One of Midnight’s Children, I feel certain affiliation. It reminds me of my childhood days, which were also filled with multiplicity of cultures, the fusion of languages, and fortunately, the calm co-existence of religions. There were spittoons and Mercurochrome. I was familiar with bilingual usages, aware of the divide between the subject and the ruling, the East and the West. Even now, I can spot the ‘imitation Oxford drawls’. My “Tick, Tock” moment was when I watched on TV here in Canada the last governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten standing in the rain holding the British Colony flag, saying goodbye to all that on July 1, 1997.

Rushdie’s animated style makes his India colourful and fascinating. His characters, descriptions and dialogues are like the splashes of a Pollock painting. That’s where the fantasy comes in, I suppose, on the large canvas of history.

Book One ends with intrigue. Saleem Sinai, it turns out, is a changeling. At the stroke of midnight August 15, 1947, two boys were born, but was soon mixed up by midwife Mary Pereira in a wilful act of self-assertion. This too has its deeper reference:

When we eventually discovered the crime of Mary Pereira, we all found that it made no difference! I was still their son: they remained my parents. In a kind of collective failure of imagination, we learned that we simply could not think our way out of our pasts…

I look forward to reading the childhood of these two changelings Saleem and Shiva, and their  journeys ahead.

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Here are the other Read-Along Posts for Book One (so far):

Bellezza at Dolce Belleza
Gavin of Page247
Janell of An Everyday Life
Jerikavonalexandra of averydisorientedreader
Colleen of Books in the City 

If you’ve written a post for our Read-Along, do let us know in a comment.

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CLICK HERE to Book Two: Part A
CLICK HERE to Book Two: Part B
CLICK HERE to Book Three Conclusion

CLICK HERE to read a March 1, 2012 interview of director Deepa Mehta on CBC news.
CLICK HERE to read about the filming of Midnight’s Children.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

unaccustomed_earth

“Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, ‘Read this!'”

— Amy Tan

Unaccustomed Earth is one of the five fiction selections of  New York Times Best Books for 2008.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut work, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and later received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award,  American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and was translated into twenty-nine languages.  Her next work was The Namesake, a novel which was turned into film by acclaimed director Mira Nair.  Unaccustomed Earth is her third book.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England, to Bengali immigrants.  Her family later moved to the United States and settled in Rhode Island where she grew up. Lahiri went to Barnard College and received a B.A. in English Literature.  She furthered her studies in literature and creative writing and obtained three M.A.’s, and ultimately, a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies at Boston University.  So, she knows her subject matter well.  In Unaccustomed Earth, characters are Bengali immigrants, mostly academics, their second generation who are born in foreign soil and their non-Indian friends or spouse.  The stories deal with the entanglement of cultural traditions, incompatible values, failed hopes and expectations, and the subsequent internal strives that haunt them all.

But why would we be interested in stories like these?  Herein lies Lahiri’s insight.  While the viewpoint of these characters might be parochial, Lahiri’s stories bring out the larger universal significance.  Who among us doesn’t belong to a community, and at one time or another, question his/her conformity in that very community?   Regardless of our ethnicity, who among us isn’t born into a family with its own peculiar traditions and values?  Who among us doesn’t feel the distance separating generations in our world of rapidly shifting paradigms, be they cultural, social, or spiritual?   And who among us, as one in the mass diaspora of drifting humanity, doesn’t want to lay down roots in fertile soil?

Despite the somber themes, reading Lahiri is an enjoyable ride.  Herein lies Lahiri’s talent.  She is a sensitive storyteller, personal in her voice, subtle in her description, meticulous in her observation of nuances, and stylish in her metaphoric inventions.  Her language is deceptively simple.  The seemingly lack of suspense is actually the calm before the storm, which usually comes as just a punchline in the end of each story, leaving you with a breath of  “Wow, powerful!”  But it is for that very line that you eagerly press on as if you are reading a thriller or a page-turner.

jhumpa_lahiriThe book is divided into two main parts.  The first contains five short stories.  The second, entitled “Hema and Kaushik”, consists of three stories but can be read as a novella on the whole, for they are about two characters whose lives intertwine in an inexplicable way.  While the characters and their situations are contemporary, their quest is the age old longing for love and connection.

I have enjoyed all the stories, but the most impressionable to me is the title one.  In  “Unaccustomed Earth”,  Ruma is married to an American, Adam, with a young child Akash, and pregnant with another.   Her recently widowed father comes to stay with her in Seattle from the East Coast, just for a visit.   During his stay, Ruma’s father builds up a bond with his grandson Akash.   The two create a little garden at the back of the house, a relationship thus flourishes as the flowers and plants blossom.  Ruma struggles with the idea of whether she should welcome her father to live with her for good to fulfil her filial duty, but by so doing, she would be adding a burden to her nuclear family.  What she does not know though is that her father has his secret and internal conflict as well.  He too wants a life of freedom and love.  The story ends with a dash of humor and a little surprise, reminiscent of a Somerset Maugham story.  I will not say more, or the spoiler will lessen your enjoyment.

I have read all three of Lahiri’s work.  And this is my query:  If her first book garnered the many literary awards including the Pulitzer, I just wonder what else could she win with her newest creation, which I enjoy far more.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2008.  333 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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