Lion: a troubling account of transracial adoption

lion_2016_filmThere’s something that troubles me about the film Lion (Garth Davis) which tracks the journey of a five-year-old boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), from a village in Madhyar Pradesh to Tasmania and back. Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley. Sue (Nicole Kidman) reveals to the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) that, at twelve years old, she had a vision that she would adopt a brown-skinned child. Thankfully the film doesn’t dwell on Sue’s do-gooding drive to adopt an unwanted brown-skinned child, but there’s something about international adoption that I find problematic, not least because the child is totally uprooted from its cultural background to fulfil some white couple’s need to save the world.

Saroo isn’t an unwanted child. He’s the much-loved son from a family of three children. He persuades his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to accompany him to the town of Burhanpur to do some night work. Saroo – remember he’s only five – is too sleepy to work and Guddu leaves him asleep on a bench by the train station. Waking in the middle of the night he boards an empty train looking for his brother but the train starts up with Saroo trapped inside and ends up 1600 Km away in Kolkata where he can’t even speak the language. What happens next is a horrific nightmare. Even the police can’t help as he mispronounces the name of his village so his mother can’t be contacted. He ends up in a juvenile centre where the children are abused and where he’s befriended by a kindly adoption worker who moves him to an orphanage, eventually arranging his adoption to Tasmania. The dialogue to the first part of this film is sparse, the visuals graphic and emotions intense. You’re with Saroo every step of the way.

The mechanism behind Saroo’s adoption and subsequent whisking off to Tasmania is unclear. Is the woman from an international adoption agency which would screen John and Sue and support them to be parents of an Indian kid who has experienced trauma? It didn’t seem so to me.

Saroo settles into his nice new family much like a rescue cat. He gets to keep his name, but to all intents and purposes he’s a purring and privileged Aussie. Not so his younger adoptive brother, brought to John and Sue a few years later by the same Indian woman. Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) does find it hard to adapt to Australian life – his childhood in India had evidently been traumatic. I wanted to know what his background was and why he was so troubled. Why did his adoption into the bosom of a well-off Australian family not help? It did not appear that either he or his adoptive parents got any support. The important issues behind transracial adoption never get raised in this film.

Fast forward twenty years when Saroo is studying hotel management. During his course he is introduced to ‘real’ Indians from India. He is forced to think about his identity which reaches crisis proportions when he has sees a plate of jalebis at a party, triggering a memory of how he was always nagging his brother, Gudda, for this ultimate sweet treat. He becomes immersed in searching for his birth family, employing Google Earth to identify the town where he was abandoned and his home village. Saroo gives up his studies becoming reclusive and depressed.

What happens next, you’ve probably guessed. It is, after all, a feel-good film. To me the identity crisis and search for his family do ring true. As an adoptive person with an Indian background I had much the same experience myself in my own search for identity and birth family (recorded in my own memoir Chasing Ghosts) – but I wanted the film to go deeper into Saroo’s character and conflicted identity – as well as that of his adoptive brother. Still, it’s a good film with some strong performances, notably Pawar as the young Saroo. I’m now keen to read A Long Way Home, Saroo Brierley’s own memoir, on which the film is based. Watch this space.






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