Five year old “Saroo” Sunny Pawar and his older brother “Guddu” Abhishek Bharate help their mother “Kamla” Priyanka Bose scratch a living by stealing coal and carrying rocks in rural India, whilst looking after their baby sister.
Their life is hard, they have each other but live in abject poverty, the fragile family group held together by their love and care for each other. The brothers are inseparable and eventually Saroo accompanies his brother for the first time, searching for night work in the nearest town.
Saroo is left sleeping for just a moment on the railway platform bench, whilst Guddu goes to find work, he fades into the black of the night, he does not come back.
Waking up, no-one is there. Mistakenly alighting a decommissioned train Saroo travels 1,500 kilometres to Calcutta, his Hindi language now useless and surrounded by millions of strangers.
At this point Australian director Garth Davis and young Pawar fully convey the sheer alienation, abandonment and terror a young child would feel in such a setting. Calcutta, or any large city is a place for an unaccompanied young child, now or 1986 when the film is set. Poverty, violence or worse awaits an innocent without money or support.
Saroo is put through the mill in the first half of the film, if you can reach the half way point without finding something in your eye, you may have chosen the wrong film.
Eventually saved by a kindly Australian couple, the “Brierleys” Nicole Kidman and David Wenham who adopt the boy and bring him up in Tasmania. We then jump forward twenty years to a well balanced Saroo played by Dev Patel, falling for a local girl “Lucy” Rooney Mara.
All is well but Saroo has doubts, can he really understand who he is when he cannot remember where he came from. He starts to look with the help of a new app called “Google Earth”……..
The first half of the film is subtitled with the young actors speaking Hindi and is a devastating watch. Young Panwar is an amazing find, not a movie moppet yet totally believable, he lights up every scene he is in. He needs to, as the dangers he faces are real, treacherous and very dark.
Understandably the latter half of the film cannot quite match the early scenes but Patel has finally found a decent role, following his breakthrough in “Slumdog Millionaire”. Kidman holds the screen with a gentle but fierce determination, portraying Saroo’s adopted mother as a woman determined to do the right thing and make a difference.
The director has fashioned an almost magical tale, cleverly using differing time-frames, overhead framing techniques and occasional dream like images, as the old and new stories intertwine. The location work also adds to the obvious authenticity and grounds the story.
So to the cynical argument, does this manipulate your emotions?
Surely that is what good cinema is all about, here relaying a true life story documented in the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. The credits also encourages audiences to donate to India based Charities helping the 80,000 children (yes 80,000), that go missing every year. All adding to an astounding 11 million street children at any one time.
Like “Schindlers List” some might say this only represents one story, with at least a ray of hope which is arguably not representative. True enough but would we really watch all the other stories, with no hope at all?
This is why we love cinema, no CGI or superheroes, just great actors telling an amazing story, which challenges your perceptions and takes you outside your comfort zone.
Highly recommended but take tissues, you may need them.