NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the movie.
I went to see this MUST-SEE film 3 weeks ago (w/ the NetSAP book club); I had read a FEW chapters of the book upon which its based (A Long Way Home) by Saroo Brierley. The theater (Landmark E St in DC) was packed that SUN afternoon- like nothing I’d seen before! I heard that MANY people has been coming to see La La Land; however, the Oscar buzz had been strong re: several other recent films (incl. Fences, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight). Last year, #OscarsSoWhite was a VERY popular hashtag on Twitter (and other social media); this year, there are diverse movies in the mainstream theaters… AND they’re making money, too.
Five year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) with his eldest brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate)
As soon as I saw him, he just felt like the kid that I’d been imagining and feeling, and then we got him into the rehearsal space and I put a camera on him. I just felt like we were watching our movie. -Garth Davis, director (on Sunny Pawar)
The MAIN reason to see this film is Sunny Pawar, the unknown child actor who plays Young Saroo. He had never acted before and didn’t speak English. The ONLY other performance I can compare it to is that of the tween Anna Paquin in The Piano. Unlike Paquin, Pawar doesn’t have a LOT of dialogue; he expresses himself mainly through his eyes and actions. At the start of the film, Saroo is living with his siblings and mother (played by Priyanka Bose) in the village of Ganesh Talai in the Khandwa District of Central India. He and his older brother, Guddu, go out each morning in the hopes of getting some change, fruit, or (if they’re lucky) milk. His mother works in a quarry, hauling rocks; her husband left her for another woman in a different town (this is discussed a BIT in the book). They are a happy family, though VERY poor and uneducated.
One night, after Guddu goes off to work (telling him to wait), Young Saroo goes to sleep at the nearby train station. When he wakes up, he doesn’t see ANYONE around, so he gets on an empty train to explore… and it takes off! He ends up in the busy city of Calcutta and somehow survives on the streets for 2 mos. (though he doesn’t know the language, Bengali). One day, a seemingly kind woman, Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee- star of Brick Lane), living near the train tracks takes him to her apartment. She feeds him, gives him a bath, and asks about his life. Young Saroo suspects something is wrong when Noor’s male friend (played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui- one of India’s BEST character actors) visits and checks him out. In no time, the quick-witted (and fast-running) kid is out the door!
After some time at a crowded homeless center (more like a prison) for kids, Saroo gets the news from Mrs. Sood (a kind social worker) that an Australian couple- Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley- want to adopt him. He wonders if everything possible was done to try and find his mother, and Mrs. Sood confidently says “yes.” The local police had interviewed him, ads had been put in the newspapers, BUT his family was a LONG way from Calcutta (which is located in West Bengal).
When Saroo reaches Australia (Tasmania to be exact), he easily takes to his new life w/ the Brierleys, who are solidly middle-class and run a charter boat business. He is a comfort to Sue after the family faces challenges w/ his younger brother, Mantosh, who suffered much before he was adopted (also from India). John instills in Saroo a love of the outdoors.
Dev Patel does a good job as the grown-up Saroo (incl. accent), a young man who loves his adopted family, but feels compelled to find his birth mother. She “could be out there suffering,” wondering where he is, he tells long-time girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). Some friends in his graduate certificate program think that w/ modern technology (Google Earth) he could try and find his old hometown.
Nicole Kidman (an Aussie), has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar; she does a fine job as a kind, understanding, and VERY emotionally strong mother. Saroo and Mantosh are “not blank slates” as her own children would’ve been, Saroo explains in one of my favorite scenes. Sue could’ve had her own (natural) children, she admits, BUT she and John chose to adopt knowing there are already MANY kids out in the world that need good homes. (Kidman, in real life, has adopted children.)
Another element that makes this SUCH a compelling film is it’s superb editing; the life of the adult Saroo is intercut (at times) w/ that of his younger self. Seeing the plate of jalebi at his Indian friends’ house takes Saroo back to when he saw that sweet treat being fried in the marketplace. The music is very good (never over the top), which is quite suited for the film. This story has a big pay-off in the end, which is true to life!