While watching the Oscars last weekend, I was reminded of the Oscar nominated film, Lion, that came out at the end of 2016. The riveting film is inspired by the true story of Saroo Brierley who used Google Earth software to find his hometown and family in India 25 years after his adoption. Between the new popular T.V. show “This Is Us” and this Hollywood movie starring Oscar nominated actors Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, it is so exciting that more adoptee narratives are being shared in the mainstream public eye. Most remarkably, this movie beautifully highlights the complexities of relationships for adoptees. I would definitely recommend this movie to adoptees and those who care about adoptees.
Saroo’s complicated relationship with himself is easily exemplified when he introduces himself on the first day of University. Saroo is asked about where he was born, and he ambivalently responds that he’s from Calcutta but that he’s not a “real” Indian. Perhaps because his memories of his home country were limited or perhaps because the majority of his upbringing was surrounded by whiteness, this split between Saroo’s physical and internal identities is obvious. But one can only reject part of who they are for so long before it takes a toll, and viewers see just how intense that burden can become in this movie.
This theme of not truly being Indian is reiterated through Saroo’s relationship with his peers. The movie shows a scene where Saroo and a number of his school friends are sitting down for an Indian meal. Though the group of friends is mixed with both White and Indian Australians, Saroo is the only one who is clearly not used to eating the food with his hands. His friends jokingly give Saroo a fork and knife with which to eat instead of doing it the classic Indian way. Feelings of inadequacy and incompetency compel Saroo to get up and leave the table briefly. The silent emotion on his face in this scene is one that I can so easily relate to as I’ve tried to navigate native Chinese spaces and unwanted feelings of envy and resentment towards those, even friends, who have the cultural knowledge I long for inevitably arise.
As Saroo beings a search for his Indian identity and elements of his former life in India, he is so concerned that his curiosity will hurt his Australian adoptive parents, he begins to distance himself from them. Like Saroo, many adoptees feel a sense of obligatory protectiveness towards their adoptive parents. Saroo, however, doesn’t initially see that the secrets and his absence hurt his parents more than any mixed emotions about his search would have caused.
From the very beginning, Saroo’s adoptive parents show respect for Saroo’s past and acknowledge that he did not come to them as a blank slate. When young Saroo had just arrived in Australia, his adoptive mother gave him a bath, and with compassionate eyes said, “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. I know you’ll tell me someday, and I’ll always listen.” This scene highlights just one of the nuances of coming together through adoption.
Lion also effectively dispels the common notions that “love can conquer all” or that “love alone makes a family.” Saroo’s parents adopt another boy from India named Mantosh, who from a young age learned to deal with traumas by hitting himself. Despite the unconditional love and opportunities provided to Mantosh through adoption, viewers see that he still uses those same coping methods in adulthood. Tensions between Saroo and his brother are easily visible, as Saroo performs what could be described as the “well-adjusted” adoptee whereas Mantosh more clearly displays acting-out behaviors. In one tense conversation, Saroo tells Mantosh that he is not his brother and that his real brother is in India still. While, of course, these words were spoken in anger and not truly meant, the movie highlights that brotherly sentiment does not necessarily naturally occur simply through adoption.
Saroo is lucky to have a caring and supportive girlfriend during much of his identity search. The intensity of Saroo’s search, however, does strain their relationship to the point of a temporary separation. Lion shows how difficult it is at times to be in partnership with someone whose identity is so in flux, again reiterating the realistic point that love, in this case romantic, can’t fix all pain.
While Lion beautifully highlights the complexities of some adoptee relationships, the ending of the film is wrapped up very cleanly in a classic Hollywood style. Saroo reunites with his biological mother in India, reconnects with his adoptive parents, and resumes his relationship with his girlfriend. The end of the movie does not show how Saroo will move forward in combining his Indian and Australian identities, how he will manage relationships with his biological family without a common language, or how he will deal with the feelings of grief and loss over his biological brother after twenty-five years of fantasizing about that reunion. Despite these gaps and unanswered questions at the end, Lion portrays a nuanced look at adoption in a way that doesn’t vilify biological or adoptive parents and pays particular attention to the spectrum of emotions for adoptees. For these reasons, I encourage anyone connected to adoptees to see this film to better understand just some of the complexities involved from the adoptee perspective.