Heart-breaking and terrifying, but dramatic filmmaking is not true life
***There be big spoilers throughout so please don’t read if you haven’t seen the film***
I liked Lion. Liked it a lot more than La La Land (see previous post). I thought Sunny Pawar, who played Dev Patel as a five-year-old was astonishing. I was totally engrossed in his journey and thought it was heart-breaking and terrifying and hugely cinematic. The problem is that journey comes to an end after about 40 minutes and there’s still 80 minutes of the film to go.
The second part was fine. Dev Patel is always very watchable (as long as we ignore The Last Airbender – nothing about that film was watchable) and the first part had supplied sufficient emotional connection with the character so I went along with it, wanting Dev and Rooney to end up together and for Nicole Kidman (with her acting hair on) to be a little less stressed out, for David Wenham to discover some sort of personality, for Dev’s adopted brother to stop smacking himself in the head and for Dev to cheer up a bit in his very comfortable beachfront property that I most certainly could not have afforded when I was in my twenties. Actually still can’t but I’m not bitter.
The problem is that whereas the first part with little Saroo was heartbreaking and terrifying and hugely cinematic, not to mention packed full of drama and jeopardy, the second part had none of that. What was at stake? What would he lose if he didn’t manage to find his birth family? Not a thing. He might never have a reason to perk up but first world problems, mate. He’d still have his education and loving adopted family and food in his belly and a comfortable roof over his head. All of which is particularly relevant to this film. He wouldn’t have to lug rocks for a living or scavenge under train seats. Personally I didn’t think he was going to go completely off the rails and top himself if his search remained fruitless. After all, he had gone for twenty years without obsessing about it until that fateful encounter with a plate of deep-fried red Jalebis.
Now I felt while watching it (because I wasn’t fully engaged in the latter two-thirds my mind was wandering but staying on topic) and thinking about it afterwards that it seemed very much like the screenwriter, Luke Davies, had stuck closely to the real events. But I wonder if that’s the right choice. After all, this isn’t a documentary, it’s a drama but the second part of the film had no drama or stakes or jeopardy or any of those others things that make stories so interesting and involving. He and the filmmakers had done such a good job on the first third that the good will from that kept me watching through to the end. Not that I would have left the cinema. I’ve never done that and I don’t mean to suggest I was even close to that here.
When you boil it all down what happens in the second part is Dev looks on the internet a bit, gets up in the middle of the night a lot to look on the internet a bit more, broods, pushes his family and girlfriend away while he obsesses, pretends not to be at home when his dad is having a rather in-depth conversation with a door (though to be fair I’d do the same if my dad started talking to a door) and then suddenly works it out by sheer fluke when out of the blue he decides to expand his search radius (which if anyone was paying attention you would have noticed his calculations were off by a few hundred miles earlier when he was calculating train speeds). Then comes the prospect of an exciting and dramatic climax every bit as involving as the opening when adult Saroo returns to his homeland to find his family. Except that’s not what happens. He stays in quite a nice hotel, has a bit of walk, finds his old village and his old house. Oh no, disaster! Goats live there now. His search has been for nothing. His family have moved on. Where in the whole of India could they be? Searching through 1.2 billion souls is surely impossible. No, his mum’s just around the corner.
Now don’t get me wrong. The ending is a great emotional pay-off. I had a little cry in the cinema. I really wanted to know what had become of his brother and was really sad when it was revealed he had died on that same night. And I really liked seeing the real Saroo and his adopted mum meeting his real mum. But I return to my earlier point that this is not a documentary. If the filmmakers only wanted to document the true events then why not make a documentary to begin with or even a dramatised documentary. My very first job was a dramatised documentary for the BBC’s QED series and they can be very effective. But that’s not what this is. This is a dramatic film so where was the drama?
Would it have been unforgivable if they had muddied the true events? Maybe less of the latter two-thirds spent in Oz with Dev being bummed out and more time spent with Dev back in India. What if he had got to the village and it was the wrong village? Now what? His search had failed. Should he just go home or should he turn detective and try to retrace his steps not on Google Earth but on actual Earth. He gets talking to a local and the subject of the field of butterflies comes up and the local says they’re over thataway in that other district. Then bit by bit he finds his way home. Same ending, same emotional pay-off but with a bit more drama along the way.
True life has a habit of not being scripted, not falling easily into three acts, but dramatic filmmaking is not true life. It’s the pretence of true life filtered through the writer, director and cast’s biased perspective. Luke Davies chose which moments of Saroo Brierley’s real life to show and which to cut. Not having read Brierley’s source material book I can’t say if there is any invention on the screenwriter’s part here but if he did alter the facts to suit the story (and I suspect he did because that’s his job) then why not go further with that? Or in this world of alternative facts, is it more important that the real facts get their moment in the spotlight?