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'Lion': A Prince of the Jungle
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
04:33PM / Friday, February 24, 2017
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Sunny Pawar plays Saroo, or 'Lion,' based on the true story of a 5-year-old lost Indian boy.

Watching Garth Davis' "Lion," about a 5-year-old Indian boy who gets lost thousands of miles from his home, the innate humanitarian in you wonders just how many years of do-gooding it might take to put a dent in the horrific squalor the tale depicts. The poverty, the social equivalent of that stench-filled restaurant bathroom that has never left your psyche, is overwhelming. Shocked by the no-holds barred expose of how 80 percent of the world lives in destitution, you are humbled by your good fortune.

Granted, scripture reads that "The poor will always be with you," and there has never been any shortage of those wicked sorts who have seized that phrase as permission to absolve themselves of any real commitment to humanity. They have fashioned all manner of economic alchemy to rationalize how their single-minded march to the accumulation of bangles, baubles, beads and Swiss bank accounts benefits the less affluent. Known as the trickledown theory since the 1950s, like Beelzebub it has had numerous aliases over the millennia.

The thought here as we watch little lost Saroo try to find his way home on the subcontinent is that while the poor may always be with us, nothing in Matthew says we're not allowed to whittle that down to just two or three folks who could maybe switch off being our poor. But in the meantime, until people decide whether or not they want to embrace their fellow countrymen instead of demonizing them, the Me First mantra perpetuates a law of the jungle that shamelessly contends we can evolve no better than this.

Fortunately, Saroo is too young to be afflicted with this rabid pessimism currently masquerading as populism. Fully in survival mode and still blessed with that idealism that distinguishes us from the savage beast, he traverses the landscape of India. We are aghast as the harrowing journey, based on a true story, thrashes our sensibilities. Bouncing from one train car to another and walking miles across inhospitable geography, it is heinous that this child must use his intuition to evade those depraved scum who would do him harm.

Along the way, as Saroo does the human version of Anna Sewell's "Black Beauty," we learn that about 80,000 children go missing each year in India, and that 11 million kids currently live on the streets of India alone. It's a bit much to digest. But while we might for a moment be tempted to give up on nobler dreams, just as a disconcerting portion of Americans recently did, our better instinct says no — emphatically, no! Encouraged by drama doing what it does best, we need little convincing to be invested in Saroo. If he survives, it is civilization's vicarious victory.

Sunny Pawar, who plays the 5-year-old Saroo, which means lion, does a fantastic job of winning our hearts. "Run, Saroo," we implore as he navigates the maze of desperate scheming that flourishes in the crime-ridden catacombs of the world's dreggiest locales. There, regarded as no more than worker ants, ostensibly left to fend in any way that they can, the population sees no oddity in this wayward waif. He is familiar, symptomatic, unthinkingly swept under the carpet of, "Well, that's just the way it is."

Forget for a moment that nearly half the people in our own country aren't really sure if they want to help the other half, to ensure, at the very least, their brethren's right to seek good health. I mean, we do have that "pursuit of happiness" thing, and one can't very well pursue much happiness if he or she is plagued by inadequate doctoring and beleaguered with hospital bills that can spell impoverishment. And we are First World people. The desolation is multiplied tenfold for Saroo.

But cheer up, just a little. The astuteness of this film is that a twist of good fate for Saroo doesn't diminish its important message. Fast forward from our intrepid moppet's wandering in the wilderness and the plot switches gears to a related, equally challenging issue. Offered the chance to be moral participants in the mulling of highminded hopes and dreams not only for Saroo, but for every human being lost in the indifference of greedy excuses, you might consider a vow — to care a bit more, to cut out the self-delusion. Listen. The clarion call sounds across our land.

The significance of the temporary ennobling such profoundly artistic muckraking creates is not that someone will now put a few more coins in the charity canister the nice old lady in front of the supermarket is shaking. But rather, it is more an invitation to become concerned with the commonweal, like when Paul Henreid's Victor Laszlo at the end of "Casablanca" (1942) says to Bogie's Rick, "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win." Saroo's exciting but distressing adventure offers a "Lion's" share of such honorable thoughts.

"Lion," rated PG-13, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Garth Davis and stars Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. Running time: 118 minutes
 

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