The Museum of Fine Arts Boston presented its eighth annual “Hollywood Scriptures” film series program this past week. The theme and films featured in the program each are chosen by the faculty in the department of professional psychology at William James College. This year, the program centered around the theme of ‘childhood’ and opened with its first screened film, “Lion,” on April 11. The film screening was followed by a reflection led by Gemima St. Louis, an associate professor of clinical psychology at William James College.
“Lion” is a 2016 Australian film adapted from Saroo Brierley’s “A Long Way Home,” a memoir recounting the author’s journey to find his Indian birth family 25 years after he was accidentally separated from them at age five and later adopted by an Australian couple. The film received six Oscar nominations, including one for “Best Picture.”
Featuring no major antagonist, “Lion” is a celebration of human kindness and tenacity. As a child, protagonist Saroo (Dev Patel as adult Saroo and Sunny Pawar as young Saroo) is depicted as a stereotypical ‘good boy,’ both with his biological and adoptive families. He collects stones to help his biological mother with her job as a laborer. Saroo also transitions very smoothly into his new life with his adoptive parents, Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). He smiles and engages with the couple during his first dinner with them, pointing at the pepper that Sue is holding and saying “pepper” to show his grasp of the English language.
His adoptive brother, Mantosh Brierley (Divian Ladwa as adult Mantosh and Keshav Jadhav as young Mantosh), finds adapting to the new family much more difficult and serves as a foil to Saroo’s charismatic character. When Saroo first arrives at the Brierleys’ house, he wanders around and gently touches different household objects along the way. Upon Mantosh’s arrival, however, he bangs his head against household items and screams. When Saroo catches Sue crying over Mantosh’s hysterical reaction to his new home, he wraps his arms around his adoptive mother’s neck to console her.
The film depicts Sue and John as a selfless couple who adopt and raise Saroo and Mantosh almost out of a sense of moral obligation. The Brierleys’ genuine kindness is evident in their patient and protective responses to Mantosh’s sporadic hysteria and refusal to partake in family events. John Brierley takes Mantosh in his arms as Mantosh kicks and screams upon his arrival at the Brierleys’ house in order to both physically protect and emotionally console him. The Brierleys offer Mantosh as much love and care as they can, even under the pressure of blunt rejections from Mantosh himself.
Saroo’s birth mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) also perseveres through the harsh challenges of raising her children. As an illiterate single mother, she carries rocks to support her three children. In Saroo’s flashback, his birth mother brings him to work, and at times pauses to hug him, praise him for bringing her rocks and pet him on his head. Despite the fatigue of work and hardship of life, Saroo’s birth mother always offers her little boy a haven of maternal love. Even more admirably, Saroo’s birth mother, for 25 years, has never moved far away from the house where Saroo is born, in the hopes that Saroo might one day search for his past home.
Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), Saroo’s biological older brother, is arguably the simplest and also the most lovable character in “Lion.” Guddu is the only character in the film that appears only as part of Saroo’s memories — the two are scavenging together the same day that Saroo boards the train that separates him from his birth family. Guddu’s ephemerality casts a literal angelic light on him, rendering his interactions with Saroo as the protective big brother nostalgic, sweet and perfect.
In the discussion following the film screening, St. Louis revealed the causal relationship between the kindness of Saroo and that of his birth mother and his adoptive parents. According to St. Louis, Saroo’s confident and caring personality is a product of the love that he has received from his two families, especially his two mothers.
“It is so palpable that you can feel it, in the kindness of her heart, in her eyes, in her gentle touch, and in her warm embrace,” St. Louis said about Saroo’s birth mother. “Without [his biological mother] even having to say a word, Saroo knew that he was loved unconditionally.”
St. Louis went on to explain that Saroo, upon losing his intimate connection with his birth mother, is fortunately bathed in a similarly selfless love from his adoptive mother. She described the strong effect that such loving family environment has on the future development of a young child.
“When children are that securely attached, they have a remarkable ability to build healthy relationships, not only during childhood, but throughout their adolescence, into [their] adulthood,” St. Louis said.
“Lion” presents the concept of familial bond as unbound by neither time nor blood, and the story demonstrates humanity’s marvelous ability to connect with one another via mere kindness and love.