Let me state upfront: I am adopted. I was born in China, when the one child policy was still in effect, and then placed in an orphanage when I was still an infant. Months later I was adopted and taken to America. This the context and reason for me writing this piece.
Spoiler Warning: I talk about some specific scenes, characters arcs, and allude to the ending.
Stories about adoption are important to me, both fictional and “based on a true story.” Besides simple catharsis, I care deeply about the narrative of adoption, which can be much more messy, complicated, and nuanced than most non-adopted people realize. You tell me there’s a prominent adopted character, I’m there. You tell me there’s an adopted character who gets some focus to process their feelings about adoption, I’m there. You can even get me with just characters who feel kind of sad about not knowing much about their heritage! So when I first saw the trailer for Lion and listened to Dev Patel admit, with that familiar undertone of apologetic embarrassment, that he didn’t know much about where he came from because he was adopted, I immediately knew that 1) I had to go see this film and 2) that I would cry at least once. (Spoilers: I cried three times.)
A quick summary if you didn’t click the trailer link: Lion is the film adaptation of A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (ghostwritten by Larry Buttrose), a memoir detailing his adoption and search for his biological family. As a young child Saroo was separated from his biological family in India and adopted by a white, Australian couple. Years later he decided to track down his hometown (the name of which he sort of remembers the pronunciation of but doesn’t properly remember) through Google Earth and social media. Lion focuses somewhat on that process but mostly on his emotional arc, coming to terms with his sense of loss around his biological family and his internal conflicts in looking for them.
Lion is good. At least, I think it is. I’m not skilled at film analysis; the technical terminology tends to escape me and the sheer amount of sensory details makes it difficult for me distinguish what works and what doesn’t. All I have to go off of are my feelings after the whole experience and whether a film gelled with me or not upon reflection.
The structure can come off as kind of uneven. There is a significant chunk of time spent on Saroo’s childhood, particularly on his struggles once he became homeless and lost from his family. It’s almost meandering, emphasizing his love for his family and the horrors he experienced. Once it skips ahead to his adulthood it rushes bumpily through his emotions, from realizing he isn’t from Kolkata to his conflicted feelings over his search. When it’s not focused on his adoption or his familial bonds, it can get a little bogged down and almost confused at what it’s trying to do. That is, Lion doesn’t know what to do with Lucy, the love interest. This might have partly to do with her character being a kind of romantic placeholder for the women throughout the real Saroo’s life. Still, it hits all the emotional beats in ways that made sense and moved me. It might come off as a corny narrative (it ends exactly the way you think it would), as many inspiring “true stories” can be, but the film has deep empathy and compassion for Saroo.
It doesn’t have much compassion for Mantosh.
Mantosh is Saroo’s brother, his adoptive brother. The Brierleys adopted another Indian child about one year after Saroo was adopted. His appearance surprised me as he didn’t appear in any trailer I saw and yet this seemed like such an important element to me. From the moment he appears, it’s clear that he’s slightly off. His head is unevenly shaved. He doesn’t quite look at anyone. He’s quiet and unresponsive until he’s brought to the Brierley home. Then he lashes out in ways that are essentially self-harm. He screams at everything and hits himself so the Brierleys hold him down to protect him from himself. Sue Brierley, the adoptive mother, tells Saroo to play in his room, that things will be alright, and then leaves to attend to Mantosh. The scene ends with her sitting alone at a table alone in silence, clearly exhausted and saddened by the chaos of the day, and Saroo comforting her.
While Saroo’s arrival to the Brierley home was one of a quiet nervousness with a gradual transition to affection, Mantosh’s arrival is marked with disruption and instability. Saroo is the dream come true while Mantosh is the nightmare.
Later in adulthood, this dynamic doesn’t change. Saroo’s first scene after the timeskip features his parents congratulating him on being admitted to a hotel management program. Mantosh is conspicuously missing from the small celebration but unsurprisingly so. He’s a flake and a loner who’s done nothing notable, except for being a burden on Sue who still adores Mantosh, while Saroo resents him for how much he’s hurt Sue. By still hitting himself, by isolating himself, by not being much of anything worthwhile.
That final scene of Saroo’s childhood, witnessing Mantosh as unstable and harmful, and acting as caretaker for Sue, doesn’t change in adulthood. This framing puts Sue on a pedestal while Mantosh is allowed to be stepped on.
What makes this all more disconcerting is the blatant parallel with another child, a nameless boy who lived in the same orphanage that Saroo was at. He does not yell unprompted but hits his head against the wall repeatedly, resulting in implied physical abuse as corporal punishment by the adults running the orphanage. Later he is taken away, as he screams in fear, implied as part of a cleanup for inspectors coming that day. And he is never seen again.
Whether the nameless boy (also unsettlingly called “The Ghoul” in the rolling credits) already had behavioral issues before coming to orphanage or not, the adults’ abuse was not his fault. The conditions that these children came from, and the resulting trauma, aren’t within their control.
And yet the film posits Saroo as the Good Child, who is sad about his lost family but eventually integrates into the Brierley family, into Australian society. Meanwhile Mantosh is the Problem Child, whose issues are never empathized with, maybe pitied at best. The dynamic of the suffering adoptive parents being white and the either Good/Bad adoptees being people of color adds an extra layer of sour discomfort.
While Saroo’s struggles, his depression, his anxiety, his isolation, his lashing out is all empathized with, is understandable and almost noble, Mantosh’s understanding of himself is never even broached, except for a single moment of some dismissive self-awareness of being a burden on the family.
And maybe that’s okay. It’s Saroo’s story, not Mantosh’s. This isn’t a story of brotherhood or the whole family, but of a Saroo’s journey to find himself. Real life needs some compression for a narrative and that’s fine too. If the real life Saroo feels his perspective was accurately portrayed, then I really can’t have any problems with that. The voices and stories of adoptees being authentic as they can be is what’s most important to me, even if I don’t empathize with everything.
But that doesn’t mean it had to be like this. To split adoptees into a dichotomy of Good Child/Problem Child paints adoptees’ experiences not simply two-dimensional, but creates a standard for them imposed by the virtue of their adoption. Problem Child narratives are not new nor exclusive to adoption narratives but it can exacerbate the perception of adoptees as fundamentally broken children while laying the blame for their issues on themselves just for existing, rather than on the systems and societies that traumatize them. Children with behavioral issues don’t deserve more stigmatization and adoptees’ worth shouldn’t be measured by how well they get along with their families.
Mantosh didn’t need to be the Problem Child. When she is older, Sue alludes to good times in the childhood Saroo and Mantosh shared. When she speaks, there’s a shot of a framed photo of the brothers as children on a boat, smiling together. While Sue is shown as benevolent, almost to her detriment, could the film have not taken time to show these moments of love and happiness? That Mantosh was more than just his outbursts of screaming and self-harm? That he too was hurting? With this unforgiving, unloving framing, what does this teach people about children who have mental illnesses? Children who have developmental disabilities? Children who process their trauma in inconvenient ways?
I suppose that I am Saroo. I was the well-behaved child. I was the child who loved her mom and dad with sweet affection. I earned good grades and praise from teachers, peers, and professional colleagues. As of right now I’m working towards my graduate degree with a vision for my future career.
But to a point I understand Mantosh. I’ve struggled with mental illness. I’ve repeatedly failed people in my personal and professional life. Sometimes I cannot tell if I’m simply selfish and lazy or whether my brain is tricking me into self-sabotaging myself. It is a hard and long battle to recover and improve myself.
If there’s anything I ask for from stories about adoptees, real or not, it is nuance. There doesn’t need to be some loud disclaimer about every possibility, every angle. But adoptees are people in their own right, not just brought into the world by the mercy of their birth parents or adoptive parents (depending on the story’s prerogative). Lion understands adoption as bittersweet at best, even as a result of society’s own failures, I simply wish for the same amount of good faith and compassion for children like Mantosh.