In Lion a child faces perhaps the most frightening of all prosepects—being separated from his family and far from home. That he manages to find a new family in a faraway land may seem like a rescue (and it is), but what of the family he lost?
The film is divided into two approximately equal halves. Five year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives with his mother, older brother, and younger sister in India. They live mostly by scavenging—sometimes dangerously. When his brother Guddu heads off one night to look for work in another city, Saroo demands to come along. After a train ride, Saroo is asleep. Guddu leaves him on a bench in the station to go get his bearings. When Saroo wakes up the station is completely empty. He searches for Guddu, but cannot find him. In time he finds a spot in a train to go to sleep, but while he sleeps the train leaves. By the time Saroo can get off he is about 1000 miles from home in the big city of Kolkata. There he falls in with other homeless street children until he ends up in an orphanage. Because he doesn’t know the basic information such as where he is from, he can’t be returned to his family. In time he is adopted by a couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) from Australia and flies away to live in Tasmania.
The film leaps ahead twenty years for the second half. Saroo (Dev Patel) is now grown and getting ready to head to the Australian mainland for a course in hotel management. There he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara), an American student, and others from around the world. He tells them his story and he begins to have brief glimpses of memories. He wonders what became of the rest of his family, but has no way of knowing where to look. Someone suggest approximating a search area and using Google Earth to find places he remembers. This becomes an obsession. How can he find anything in such a vast land as India? And what would he do if he actually found what he was looking for?
Family is obviously one of the central themes of the film. Saroo’s family in India was impoverished, but the bonds of love are very obvious. When he is cut off from his family, he is in great danger. That he managed to survive the streets for as long as he did is miraculous. Even in the orphanage, things are only marginally better. When he is sent to his Australian parents he finds a new life—one of comfort and possibilities for happiness. Here is another family with bonds of love—even though there is a side plot dealing with another Indian adopted by the family who brings emotional issues with him, even as an adult.
But family isn’t just about parents who love him. He also must come to consider what it means to be a son and a brother. To truly understand that he must try to better understand the family of his birth and the love that he found and strives to remember in that setting. The storyline with the adopted brother wasn’t really developed enough see how Saroo had to come to terms with his feelings both for that brother and the one he lost as a child.
Another key theme is what it means to be lost and found. In Christian thought, salvation is often described as being found. Saroo understands being lost: alone in a strange city, knowing no one, unable to speak the language. He has nowhere to turn. Yet, through various circumstances, he manages to be “found” and saved by strangers who take him in and make him their own son. But Saroo also comes to realize that the trauma of being lost applies to his birth family as well. He knows that they must have been devastated and searched for him. His obsession with finding them is as much to bring them closure as it is a search for his roots. But in his obsession he runs the risk of cutting himself off from those who love him and ending up lost in an emotional sense. His salvation is not limited to being sent to a loving family, but also in finding himself as he seeks to reconnect with his other family.