Garth Davis’ Oscar-nominated “Lion” is essentially two films in one, the first half driven by visuals and backdrops, the second half by language and dialogue and the pervasive power of memory to help form our sense of cultural identity. Emotion is what holds these distinct, real-life stories together — one, the story of a boy who becomes separated from his family and everything he knows in the world; the other a story about that same boy, now a grown man, struggling to find his way home.
When “Lion” starts out Saroo is 5 years old and living in dirt-floor squalor in central India with his family. All the dialogue is in Hindi. India, through sweeping shots of its burnt-sienna landscape and people dressed in traditional jewel-toned garb, becomes a central character.
We experience the world through Saroo’s wide-eyed stare, the way his chocolate brown eyes light up at the smell of deep-fried jilebis at the market and the desperate manner in which he tugs at his elder brother’s shirt, aching to taste the round sugary treat that they cannot afford.
When Saroo finds himself on an empty, out-of-service train barreling across the tracks toward places unknown, it’s the tears spilling down his face and the sounds of that train — the hiss and screech of its breaks, the clack of its dust-covered seats — that intensify his mounting panic.
Alone in the streets of Kolkota, Saroo winds up in an orphanage where another boy bangs his head against the wall, he’s so tortured and abused, and the children sing themselves to sleep each night. It’s the looks on their faces as they quietly sing, forlorn and hopeless, that capture the daily horror of their lives.