Based on his 2014 memoir, this is the true story of Saroo Brierly (Sunny Pawar), who in 1986 at the young age of five sneaks away to work with his older brother, who travels quite a distance by train. Their mother also works picking up heavy rocks for whatever little cash she can earn to support herself and her children (There’s also a young sister). Circumstances see the two brothers lose track of one another, and eventually the poor young boy ends up boarding a train accidentally to Calcutta (now Kolkata). Being that he’s only 5 and from a remote and poor village, Saroo doesn’t speak the language there. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to know the name of the village he’s from, making it difficult for anyone to help him. He also gets preyed upon by the creepier elements of society, before eventually winding up in an orphanage. After a while there he finds himself adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who take him back to Tasmania with them to live, along with another Indian boy, the troubled Mantosh.
Twenty five years pass, and the adult Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) living and studying in Melbourne, becomes increasingly haunted by the little flashes he has of his childhood home in India, struggling with issues of identity and belonging. After hearing about it from friends, Saroo decides to fiddle about with Google Earth to see if he can’t track down his birthplace, and his family. Rooney Mara plays an American ex-pat student who becomes Saroo’s girlfriend in Melbourne.
Although he has done work for TV, this 2016 true story (released in most places in 2017, however) is the feature directorial debut of Garth Davis. Scripted by Luke Davies (“Candy”), it’s an irresistible true story that had me crying like a baby at least three times in the last 15-20 minutes. Although the first half of the film is set in India and the cast includes English and American actors (possibly including Hawaiian-born Nicole Kidman there), it’s one of the better Australian films in recent years and deserves to be called an Australian story as much as an Indian one. How Australian? Mondo Rock’s classic ‘State of the Heart’ is heard on the radio and Nicole Kidman pretty much has her old hair colour back. That’s how Australian.
As for the India-set portion of the film, young Sunny Pawar is excellent, but I did find it took a few minutes for me to adjust to the fact that the film’s trajectory is almost the opposite of what the trailer suggested. It’s probably why I’m one of the few people who preferred the second half of the film to the first, albeit only slightly. Once you do realise you’re not going to see Dev Patel for a while, you are at turns fascinated and depressed by this young boy’s awful predicament. It’s amazing that he managed to get out of India, things got quite hairy for a bit there and could’ve gone even more horribly wrong for the poor boy. It’s almost hard to watch at times for that very reason.
For the second half, Kidman and David Wenham are instantly perfect 80s Aussie parents. You’ll have no problems believing them and knowing what era and country you’re in. I’m an Aussie 80s/early 90s kid myself, so I definitely felt at home. I’m not sure the director needed to cast American actress Rooney Mara to play the girlfriend, especially since her real-life counterpart was actually Australian. Perhaps that was on the insistence of globally/financially-conscious producers. She’s a bit of a distraction though, if you ask me. Helping matters enormously, and one of the chief reasons to see the film is Dev Patel as the grown-up Saroo. I’m not using hyperbole when saying that the English-born actor puts on the best Australian accent by a non-Australian I’ve ever heard (Meryl doesn’t count, as Lindy Chamberlain had an accent all of her own). An Aussie will tell you it’s possibly not 100% flawless, but an honest Aussie will tell you it’s closer than anyone else has ever gotten in cinematic history. It’s practically flawless to my ears at least, I was gobsmacked. It’s a hard accent, he’s nailed it, and gives a terrific performance. Patel gets in this poor guy’s skin, and this guy has been through a lot. It’s hardly new material, but personal and cultural identity, who you are and where you’re from are big things. When these aren’t known things, they can consume someone.
A few elements in the story play out in slightly more ‘Hollywood’ fashion than they did in real-life (not to mention truncated), but let’s face it, sometimes the real deal would be pretty tedious and mundane to watch play out. More detrimental is the fact that the film seems to have to truncate its second half a bit because so much time is spent on the India section. It’s nowhere near a fatal flaw (as I said, I prefer the second half), but I do wish they found a way to streamline the first half just a tad so that a little more time could’ve been spent on the Australian side of the story that I personally felt was most interesting. I’m not sure what you’d cut out, however. Perhaps it was unavoidable, since it’s based on a true story.
This is an extraordinary story and a very good, if not great film. It’s certainly a strong directorial debut for Davis. Dev Patel thoroughly deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination, in fact the entire film is superbly acted. Have the tissues handy, this one’s genuinely moving.