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 (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.


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


Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Slumdog Millionaire

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Lunchbox

The Railway Man (2013) Movie Review

Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, ‘The Railway Man’ has only recently made its way into North American theatres, a slow train considering the story dates back to a chapter in World War II history that has generally been ignored. It had taken Eric Lomax decades to open up and tell his story as a Japanese prisoner of war. His autobiography The Railway Man was published in 1995, half a century after his ordeal.

The Railway Man


Noting the demographics of the audience in the theatre I was in, it is likely that the passing of a generation could mean the eventual silencing of eyewitnesses and victims, or those who have heard from them first-hand. While a movie adaptation of Eric Lomax’s autobiography is important for raising awareness of the events in the Pacific theatre during the War, the real difficulty is to attract younger viewers today to go into a movie theatre to watch it.

Of the numerous full-length features on WWII, only David Lean’s 1957 “The Bridge on the River Kwai” comes to mind for a movie that deals with this chapter in history. Eric Lomax was a young signals officer in Singapore when the British surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. He and other British soldiers were transported to Thailand to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway as slave laborers. Notoriously known as The Death Railway, the conditions there were horrendous. Many POW’s died and others were tortured. Lomax was one of them.

Having read his memoir, I find ‘The Railway Man’ a more realistic depiction of the POW’s conditions. Lean’s film where the men are portrayed in top physical shape marching to the famous whistling tune looks like a summer camp when compared to the atrocities Lomax and others had suffered. The war ended in 1945, but not the psychological torments of former POW’s.

‘The Railway Man’ begins with Lomax (Colin Firth) in 1980, a middle-aged veteran, still a railway enthusiast, encountering Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) while travelling on a train. This first part of the movie is the most enjoyable in that we see Colin Firth in his most natural and easiest demeanor, romantic yet reserved, with a dash of quirkiness. Nicole Kidman, with minimal make-up, gives an admirable understated performance. The two make good screen chemistry. Viewers will have more of their partnership in some upcoming productions.

Colin Firth & Nicole Kidman

As they chat on the train, David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ is mentioned, a life imitating art experience thus ensues except this one leads to a long-term relationship. Eric and Patti soon get married. On their honeymoon, the nightmares of Lomax’s traumatic past begin to expose. He drops on the floor wrenching from fearful flashbacks.

Observing in anguish, Patti seeks to find out more from Lomax’s fellow veteran Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) who cautions her of the scars of war and the never-ending torments. Thus leads to the second act where we see flashbacks into Lomax’s horrific POW experiences.

Jeremy Irvine puts forth an impressive effort in his portrayal of a courageous and decent young Lomax. After the radio he has made and his hand-drawn map of the railway line are discovered by his Japanese captors, the young Lomax bravely steps out to admit his involvement in order to spare his fellow soldiers the punishment. He is beaten, interrogated as a spy, and repeatedly tortured. Throughout, the young Japanese officer Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) is in full command.

Jeremy IrvineThe film goes back and forth in time during the bulk of the story, not roughly, but in an unbalanced way. The WWII sequences are intense, but the present day scenes exude a lethargic sense of inaction. While the talents of both Firth and Kidman can readily be tapped, the screenplay allows no further development other than the close-ups of a repressed and traumatically disturbed Lomax and a loving but exasperated Patti watching from the sideline. Here is a time when you would wish the director (Jonathan Teplitzky) and screenwriters (Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) had exerted more artistic freedom and creative energy into the film.

The plot turns a new direction as Finlay finds out that the Japanese officer Nagase (now played by Hiroyuki Sanada) who was involved in Lomax’s torture is still alive. Adding to Lomax’s burden, Finlay has pressured him to take revenge. Indeed, it is with a vengeful resolve that Lomax seeks Nagase out in a war museum in Thailand, where Nagase is a tour guide by the River Kwai, showing visitors the same prison camp wherein Lomax was once a captive.

As the torturer and the victim confront, tension rises. In the most critical moment, the murderous vengeance that Lomax has harbored is snapped. Nagase expresses genuine remorse and offers his apology to Lomax. Vengeance is thus dissolved into forgiveness.

This third act is supposedly the most moving section. Unfortunately it drags on too long, losing the power of the cathartic punch. While Firth’s performance is riveting as he enters the torture room and relives the past, the verbal exchanges between the adversaries and their ultimate reconciliation look contrived. As in the book, which leaves readers little explanation as to Lomax’s change of heart, I assume therein lies the difficulty for the screenwriters to invent a realistic and dramatic scenario.

Nonetheless, stories like this ought to be told for the understanding of historic truths and of the human heart. It just may sound like an over-simplification, but maybe the long road to reconciliation does start with a word of apology.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

CLICK HERE To read my book review of The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.


This movie review was published in the May 10 issue of Asian American Press.