UNPACKING THE FILM: ‘LION’ WITH AN ADOPTEE LENS
I will preface this piece by noting that I have not read Saroo Brierley’s book and I am simply basing my analysis on the film.
As an adoptee, I was initially looking forward to seeing this film. Finally, an adoptee would be the main protagonist in a movie. But after discussing this with many other adoptees I became hesitant. Why? Because we are sadly too used to seeing adoptees portrayed in stereotypical and polarizing ways (e.g., superheroes or Dickensian orphans). In truth, the complexity of the adoptee experience is largely ignored in the mainstream. So, the Lion had a lot to live up to. Did it succeed? In some ways, yes, absolutely. The actors did a fine job and I must congratulate Dev Patel on his mastery of the Australian accent!
Yet there were so many missed opportunities. For example, I wonder if many viewers (who are not adopted) had a framework for understanding or questioning Saroo or his adoptive brother's experiences? Where these could have been explored and fleshed out, viewers were perhaps left wondering. Let me rephrase that, I wasn’t left wondering — the small insight into their emotional torment made perfect sense to me as an adoptee. I ran the gauntlet of emotions with them and aspects left me so angry. So, in that vein, I am going to unpack some key elements and ask some questions through the adoptee lens.
Why was Saroo taken away from his country and culture and adopted in Australia in the first place? Let’s get this elephant in the room squared away right now. I approached Mr. Arun Dohle (who was adopted by a German couple from an Indian orphanage.) who is executive director of the organization Against Child Trafficking for comments. Arun, an expert in this field, notes that “one pivotal layer missing from the movie are the fees involved in operationalising Saroo’s adoption.” The movie rightly portrays the orphanage (Liluah Home) as a dire place (which apparently, it was) and then we are introduced to his savior Saroj Sood of ISSA (Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption) who facilitates Saroo’s adoption. According to Mr. Dohle, “the private adoption agency will only get paid if Saroo is adopted”. In that context, some viewers may have questioned the efforts that were made to find Saroo’s family? This was reinforced when Saroo asked Saroj if they had looked for his mother. This film did not convince me that all efforts had been made to reunify Saroo with his family, should this have been further outlined?
To that end, Mr Dohle, reflects that, Saroo was “failed on many levels”. “The state neglected him (i.e., not receiving adequate care in the Liluah Home) and did the police fail him by not finding his family?” Furthermore, Mr Dohle asked the key question “Did Australia exploit the flawed Indian child protection system?” I will leave you to ponder that within the context of Western privilege and saviorism…
As such, adoption and poverty are closely intertwined and Researchers Cuthbert and Fronek have written numerous papers on intercountry adoption which highlight the structural inequalities that underscore it. Whatever your views, following Saroo’s adoption, Australia became a signatory to the Conventions on the Rights of the Child. According to UNICEF “The Convention changed the way children are viewed and treated — i.e., as human beings with a distinct set of rights instead of as passive objects of care and charity”. Saroo had a universal human right to be with his family, community and culture which he was arguably denied once he was adopted and raised in Australia.
Your child is missing — would you want their adoption to be easier? This question by Fronek (please click the above link to read this article) sums up the feelings that were evoked in me as I watched this film. That is, I couldn’t help but wonder what if this was an Australian child that went missing? To quote Fronek “Imagine for one moment your child went missing. Surely you would expect no stone to be left unturned to find your child — even if took six months, a year, or two. But how would you feel if your child was permanently given to someone else before this happened? This is exactly what happens to many families around the world. Parents are targeted by recruiters and children are bought or stolen and sold. Other children are lost, separated by war or disaster, or left for temporary safekeeping in children’s homes.” I am not saying that this is what happened in this case but likewise the film didn’t adequately answer this for me.
Adding to this, the part of the film, when he was handed over to his adoptive parents at the airport, who were strangers and told this was his mum and dad, left me exasperated! Whether Saroo chose to refer to them as his mum and dad at that early stage was his decision and no one else’s. I can only imagine how confusing that might have been.
Finally, I was left wanting to know more about his family in India and their wellbeing. I felt that his mother and family's anguish was not adequately captured. Rather, the film focused more on his adoptive mother’s feelings. I can’t imagine the gut-wrenching anguish and heartache that his family in India endured every day.
Should Saroo be grateful? I couldn’t help but notice Saroo’s dialogue often centered on the feelings of his adoptive mother. We must remember that he lost his entire family in one night at aged five. He went to sleep and woke up alone! The moving them moves ahead and we are introduced to the adult Saroo and before long we glimpse his torment. We are also given insight into how guilt-ridden he felt as he secretly searched for his family. This phenomenon is not uncommon amongst adoptees. I too have experienced deep feelings of guilt for wanting to find my family of origin. This again intersects with the notion of ‘disenfranchised grief’. It was not his responsibility, as the adoptee, to make his adoptive family feel better.
This ‘middle position’ whereby adoptees are caught between caring for the feelings of their adoptive families and their innate desire to know who they are and where they come from, is often not well understood by the mainstream. This is not a pathological response on the part of the adoptee but a normal response in abnormal circumstances. That is, everyone who is not adopted takes for granted that they know who they are and where they come from.
On that note, I will end this piece, in the important, albeit ubiquitous, words of The Reverend Keith C. Griffith, MBE:
“Adoption loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”
The film did attempt to straddle this, and as an adoptee, I empathized with Saroo and his brother's torment, but I really wanted the film to explore this further. Adoption, for me, was never easy and I at times experienced the same aching trauma in silence (it came out in my behavior) despite loving my adoptive family. No amount of love could have erased that for me.
I also wonder how many people were left questioning the lack of support he received? Post-adoption support was never availed to myself either or other adoptees I know. We were all let down by a system that treated us as blank slates. This leads me back to the notion of disenfranchised grief as aforementioned.
For those in Australia, Lion is currently being streamed on SBS.