I went to see Lion, which is on general release around Australia at the moment. It brought tears to my eyes. I found it completely authentic (except for one single scene) and very well done and I will explain why.
Lion is the true story, of a young Indian boy called Saroo, (Sunny Pawar) who goes out one morning with his adored older brother. The brother is busy making money by stealing lumps of coal, foraging among the wagons of trains and turning his hand to anything which will make a few rupees to support his mother who is a labourer and his younger brother and sister. On this particular morning, as Saroo was tired, his brother left him at the railway station with a promise to collect him later. When he awoke, however, Guddu was nowhere to be found and the little boy got on a train, fell asleep and found himself 1600 miles from his home.
He was 5 years old.
The first part of the film is the five years old's journey in Calcutta and West Bengal to try and find his way back home and the various adventures that befell him. In spite of his young age, he is a very natural and believable character. The film is directed by Garth Davis and the screenplay is very polished. The plot moves quickly and engagingly through the adventures of this young boy.
The second part of the film is in Australia - the little boy has been adopted by a loving Australian couple who pour their heart and love into raising Saroo - and later on, his much more problematic brother, also from India.
Saroo now an adult and played superbly by Dev Patel, sets out on a mission to trace his village with the help of Google Earth. It takes an obsessive and single-minded purpose but he finally finds the village ...
The reason why this film is so authentic is that Saroo's story is the story of so many children in India. Children, who for one reason or another, a crowded venue, an abusive parent, a desire to run away from home and so much more, end up on the railway and often miles away from their hometown. Children as young as four who are alone and unable to make sense of what has happened to them. Not only do they end up somewhere far away from home, but often they cannot even speak the language. India has so many languages and is vast. While most speak two or three languages, the children often first learn the language of their birth. This may be completely unrecognisable in other states. This came across very clearly in the film where Saroo spoke Hindi, but no one could understand him in West Bengal. A lot of the children get on the railway and travel to Delhi. There are approx 2,500 children who come into the New Delhi Railway station every year.
When I lived there, I went on a City Walk which shows you where these children live on the railways station and also how they survive. A lot of the girls are taken into prostitution, while others are trafficked. The boys are often abused. So when I heard this I wanted to know more and I came to support, fundraise and work with Salaam Baalak Trust. It means to Salute a Child. They have helplines on the railway. They take children in, they try and find their parents, a task that is often monumental and doesn't always yield results and if they cannot find them, or the parents are unable to support the children, the Trust houses them, looks after them and educates them.
We were taken round by a young man whose name is Shahadutt. He is 23 now and has learnt to speak English by taking supporters of the trust on this tour of the Railway Station.
He came to Delhi from Bihar with his father and his older brother and both boys were put to work. Shahadutt worked in an embroidery factory. Yes, those beautiful embroideries that we see in the shops are often the work of young and nimble fingers, but aged 6?
Shahadutt 6, worked in the factory for some 15 months and then his father became sick and he went back to Bihar to be cared for by his family. Shahadutt was left alone in this unknown and forbidding city. He went in search of his older brother who he had visited once but aged 7 he was barely able to work out where he was and with two rupees in his pocket he soon became disorientated and ended up at the railway station.
This is where thousands of children end up. Approximately 2,500 per year either because they have boarded the train to Delhi in search of jobs or been sent here by their families or because they have become separated from their families and have nowhere to go.
They are as young as 4 and end up living on the railway line. They find a place to sleep between the railway bridge and the passage that lies underneath it. Shahadutt joined a gang of boys because he identified a boy slightly older than him, who was Muslim like he was. The older boy was a drug addict and he used Shahadutt to get his drugs for him. Mercifully and strangely he instilled in him that drugs are wrong and he acknowledges the debt he has to this older boy. And this is only a snippet of Shahadutt's story. There are many more.
So go and see this film, it is rewarding as much as it is real. The only scene that did not ring true was the scene on the Howrah Bridge where Saroo finds himself in the middle of the night. There was no one there - that seems almost impossible in India. Everywhere you go, humanity is all around you. When you have seen the film, press on Salaam Baalak Trust and see how you can help these children. Each and every one of us can, whether it is by going to meet them in India, making donations, giving school supplies, volunteering and so much more.