Dev Patel in 'Lion'
Director: Garth Davis
Actors: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham, Rooney Mara, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee
Among actors in the world, if there was ever a wrong person, at the right place, in the right time, it would have to be Dev Patel. Frankly, he lost me (and I'm sure many others) in the very second he first appeared on screen, with a clipped British accent, in Danny Boyle's 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008). It seemed far more fantastical to place Dev as a Mumbai slum-dweller than to imagine a slumdog becoming a millionaire on a TV quiz-show.
Of course Danny Boyle knew what he was doing. Slumdog slammed it at the Oscars that year. Ever since, Dev's been the brown poster-boy in Hollywood, retaining his Brit twang, and bagging "Indian" roles that most locals would give their right arm for --Jaipur caretaker in the sleeper super-hit, 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel', and its sequel; as Tamil math genius Ramanujan in 'The Man Who Knew Infinity'.
Dev plays the protagonist Saroo in this film. But his part is not set in India. That bit is taken care of by the fabulous little boy, Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo's child version. Spare a second, and look closely at this little Saroo, with thick hair, runny nose, and a thin film of the city's grime and dirt coated over his skin that is severely tanned from a life spent under the harsh sun. I say this because you have seen this faceless boy in absolutely every Indian town/city, except never noticed, or wondered, where he could be coming from, or where he's going.
This thoroughly absorbing film delves deeper to give this child a story, a name, and a face. This India portion, at least in the version I watched, has been shot in Hindi. Which is a huge relief, if you were expecting basic modicum of respect for authenticity in a film based on a true-life account -- Saroo Brierley's non-fiction novel A Long Way Home -- about a 5-year-old who accidentally gets separated from his mother, a quarry worker (Priyanka Bose; outstanding!), and his brother, to find himself eventually adopted by white parents in Australia.
Up until a couple of decades ago, Bollywood used to have a spate of time-tested 'lost and found formula' movies. Not that we haven't seen pix about people separating and searching for each other since. But unless it's a period film, none of this is ever going to make sense anymore, since you will inevitably wonder, "Why couldn't they just look each other up on Facebook?" Well, to be fair, in Saroo's case, Facebook is still a slightly far-fetched solution. Google Earth, if he has the patience, could possibly help him trace his roots. But there are too many 'ifs and buts', permutations and combinations involved.
Either way, you have a true trans-continental story with striking contrasts between the misery and destitution in India (no knock, they're only showing the truth), and the pristine quietness Down Under. The gaze is naturally the white man's. Trust Harvey Weinstein, however, to pick this script up, get Nicole Kidman on board, polish it up, gently add opening riffs of Rahman's scintillating 'Urvashi, Urvashi' in the background score, for instance, and see it right through to the Oscars! Comparisons with 'Slumdog Millionaire' are inevitable. And while Slumdog was a very external experience, thrilling and entertaining even; this is slightly more introspective, and certainly more personal, and real.
And yes, going back to Dev Patel, who plays a young adult, grappling with the duality of his unsure Indian origins, and his adopted Australian life, this is by far his finest performance yet. To start with, for once, his role fits him tightly like a Tasmanian Tiger glove.
Watch 'Lion' trailer