Movies about India. Can they be worth watching?

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

Movies about India vary wildly from gritty dramas to Bollywood musicals.  Nearly all are more authentic than the dreadful “Shantaram”.  

I recently watched the 2016 movie “Lion”, set in India, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

A tiny boy gets lost

Saroo, a tiny boy, arrives confused, in Calcutta.  He does not speak Bengali and has no family or friends or idea where he is.

Lion is his story.  I won’t say anything more about it, because I hate spoilers. So don’t click on the trailer below!

The “Lion” trailer is packed with spoilers.  Avoid!

A stunning first half…

I watched Lion on a wise person’s recommendation recently on a plane to Chennai.  I thought the first half, featuring the stunning Sunny Pawar as Saroo, was riveting – especially if, like me, you hadn’t seen the trailer and the plot developments came as a complete surprise.  The second part, which featured amongst others Nicole Kidman, struck me as OK but relatively routine and schmalzy in parts, especially the dodgy finale.

Part of “Lion” ring true

So why did I enjoy it so much?  I guess it’s the cinematography and the story of that poor child trying to find his way.  Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on Lion cites Salman Rushdie saying that he was usually suspicious of Western films set in contemporary India, but that the first half of Lion rang particularly true.  Correct.  I was gripped.

During the first half, anyhow.

Tense moments

The movie is reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire also featuring Dev Patel, who plays the adult Saroo.  But Slumdog – a hugely entertaining movie that has also generated debate about the extent to which it attempts to portray reality – has a more sophisticated, conventional story than Lion.  I always had a sense that everything would turn out OK.  Lion, by contrast, had me worried through long periods.

More authentic than “Shantaram”

I recently wrote a review of India and of the novel Shantaram (hit the link to see review, and my photos) which concluded that the former was awesome and the latter not a reliable guide to the former.  I’m not sure Lion  is a reliable guide to India either but it feels more authentic than Shantaram.

In fact even the magnificent musical parable of Lagaan (subtitle: Once Upon a Time in India) feels more authentic than Shantaram.

The trailer for the all-singing, all-dancing Lagaan is a noble attempt to sell a cricket-based Indian movie to a US audience.  

Lagaan – recommended

If you haven’t seen Lagaan; have a bit of time; and, have, perhaps, consumed a beer or a glass of wine, I would recommend it.  Excellent story, songs, dances and truly villainous British colonialists.  In fact, the Brits in Lagaan are (with one or two noble exceptions) so villainous that I was puzzled that in the climactic cricket scene, the umpires, who play a key role in making the outcome possible, are themselves British.

To understand how this comes about, take a look at the “Deleted Scenes” on the Lagaan DVD.   Then, it kind of makes sense.

In summary, as someone who has only visited India a few times, I’m not sure that total accuracy is necessarily a help in creating an entertaining, worthwhile movie about one of the greatest countries on earth.  I can’t wait to get back there.

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