Margarita with a Straw: Indie Gem of Pure Content and Character with an Empowering Social Message

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A lot of Indian films don’t stretch to address the wide scope that diversity stands for. Yes we have characters of different backgrounds and heritages, and yes we have stories pertaining to them, but it is very rarely seen for issues like disability and sexuality to be in the forefront. Margarita with a Straw brings it to the forefront, showcases it in its entirety and doesn’t sugar-coat the important aspects, it doesn’t brush it off with a comic interlude, it deals with it, in all the negative and positive reactions it would receive within a working class Indian nuclear family. And that is just one half of the film and story, the primary showcasing of disability and sexuality is boiled down to how the main character, Laila, holds herself and discovers who she is as a girl in a wheelchair who may or may not be bisexual. The film is a social commentary on the beauty of relationships and self-discovery; it is a voice for the marginalised and stigmatised, and taboo communities in a country yet to reach the highest point of a representative, progressive social and cultural order.

Laila, played by Kalki Keochlin, is a girl with cerebral palsy living in New Delhi, India, with her primary caregiver and mother, father and younger brother. They are a close-knit family with nothing but love and acceptance for Laila and her condition, something that is rare and or difficult to do in most families across the world. Her family as a whole exudes an image of cultural progression as her parents hail from differing background; her mother from South India and her father from the north. They are supportive in her desires to live as normally as she wants to, for instance her interest in music, her role in a college band and her choice to move to New York for studies. The only exception that her mother feels strongly about is the notion of love, to which she attributes being in love with boys, something she wants for her child someday but knows that it will be a hard path.

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Feeling the pain of her first heartbreak over a boy in her class, Laila decides to transfer her studies to America, where she meets Khanum, played by Sayani Gupta, a blind girl from Pakistan, with whom she falls in love and thus believes she is a lesbian. She goes through the tumultuous stages of her youth life like any other young girl would, and one prevalent part of that is sexual discovery. Her realisation of her bisexuality, after becoming intimate with a classmate, called Jared, Laila enters that realm of ones youth where confusion settles and overtakes ones moral code. She doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings for boys and girls, she doesn’t know how to tell Khanum what she did, or even her family about who she is. The film beautifully picks up on these rites of passage moments all the while taking our focus away from her disability, sending the message to its viewers that her cerebral palsy does not stop her from living and discovering sexuality, love, relationships and ultimately her identity.

This is just one part of the film, where she immerses herself into the ups and downs of youth. The other parts demonstrate the relationships she has with her family and then the subsequent affects of her life in New York upon her family. The bond Laila shares with her mother, Shubhangini, played by Revathi, is one of two best friends more than a caregiver and patient, or mother and daughter. The attachment and love between them is so strong and warm that it becomes something of a curse when troubles knock on their door. Laila plucks up the courage to come out to her mother and is met with disapproval, but it is not about Shubhangini’s acceptance for her daughter’s sexuality, it is about Laila’s revelation. Whether or not you are accepted, you should reveal your true self because if not, it becomes a hindrance when trying to live your life happily, thus her coming out represents one step in her journey to taking control of her life and completely opening herself up to her loved ones. She doesn’t come out to her father or brother, just Shubhangini, and that bears a significant message in itself as she is the one person that understands her most, she is her right hand and the woman that has stood with her since birth. Later, Shubhangini falls ill and Laila discovers that she has relapsed from fourth stage colon cancer, of which she had no knowledge. From there Laila realises that there will be a time in her life, in the near future, that she will have to take control, lead her own life and become accustomed to being by herself, and she does just that. After her mother’s death, Laila understands and embraces the next chapter in her life, and with whom does she choose to celebrate? Herself. And how does she celebrate? With a margarita and a straw.

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The film is a humanist approach to enduring life in all its good and bad moments, and coming out at the end having found a way to be content with life and all it throws at you. Laila lives without a care for the stigma and taboo connected to her condition, she kisses boys, she has crushes, she curses people who only see her chair and not her, and she feels heartbreak. She is no different, but her condition made her so. Personal freedom was replaced by dependability, but the end scene changed that and you see a young girl just taking off in her new life. The story is so pure and raw that you don’t have to directly relate to Laila, yes you could be LGBT, have a disability, or be Indian, but you don’t have to. You can just be a person trying to find yourself, your identity or your path in life. Escaping into this film for those few hours’ grips you enough to strike a change in yourself, or ignite the urge for change in general.

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Sitcoms can be serious too: One Day at a Time…

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Comedy is such a difficult feat at the best of times. You can have a solid ensemble cast and a series of scenarios in which they live, act and stumble, but if the comic dialogue, action and timing is not correct and is not welcomed with the reaction you need and want, the show will suffer. Look at some of the long-running classic sitcoms to grace our screens like Friends or The Big Bang Theory – ten or more seasons, characters that live on and peek into our day-to-day conversation, I mean, there is a friends quote for almost every story or situation. Then you have shows like Baby Daddy and New Girl, which are hilarious in their own rights, but have not had the same effect, the former having been cancelled a few episodes before its current season is to end, and the latter to end after its limited episode seventh season to air later in the year. Comedy is tough to execute, you must have the right characterization, the right scenarios, and most important of all, the consistency to pull it off throughout the season, and future seasons it may or may not have.

So when you throw in some hard-hitting socio-cultural content in the mix, writers have got to have some serious skill to keep audiences attracted to this new age sitcom, or they are just brave and hopeful in their experimentations with a classic form of television. One Day At A Time pushes the boundaries with this classic television show remade and revamped with a fiery Cuban family of three generations; grandmother, mother, and two kids. With jokes, gags and one-liners welcoming audiences into the crazy home of a traditional catholic Cuban abuela, a spunky ex-army turned nurse mother, her 21st century cause of the world ringleader daughter and apple of everyone’s eye tweener son, the show then snatches us away from the standard light heartedness of comedy by lulling us into a false sense of security and dropping huge emotional monologues on us like a tonne of bricks. And it sure as hell grips you.

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Anecdotes about the army, PTSD, religion and God, sexuality, absentee father, and the big ones; love and family, take us on journeys with the characters that you would ditch for a slapstick comic scene in the typical sitcom. This show does funny, jumps to serious and then spins us back in a tizzy of cackling laughter all in the space of thirty minutes. And in all of that we get widespread character profiles, heaps of cultural context into one nook of the vast Latin community, Cuba in particular, and the addressing of important themes and issues being tackled in todays real world. You hear one-liners and jokes in 80s/90s sitcoms, sometimes even the current ones, where significant issues like gender power roles, homosexuality and race/ethnicity labeled or even stigmatized as the subsequent ‘butt.’ Eric were always teased about his role in his relationship with Donna in That 70s Show, Chandler in Friends was always anxious about being assumed gay, and Raj in The Big Bang Theory experiences the ill-advised ‘brown dude’ jokes. Now we all know comedy is not meant to be taken seriously, the comic content is not a reflection of society’s views and/or actions, yet it is refreshing to see a group of writers poking fun at the abuela’s accent, or the daughters goth best friend, or even the extensive topic of religion and then stripping it all back to touch upon the other side to these social, cultural and political matters. Some may love, some may hate it, some may say it’s a fresh outlook of comedy, some may say if I wanted serious TV I would’ve watched Line of Duty, but you can’t please everybody, and if you tried, you will be stuck in writing and development stages until the end of time. It is a different side to comedy, sometimes serious, but it still abides by the primary function – being funny.

So to review, One Day at a Time is new age sitcom, a drama for the family, and a new take on an ever-growing, soon-to-be crowded industry predicated on form and genre. So they turn the tables and instead of having another dark fantasy, or crime drama (which are still awesome) they give us a tough, gritty, real comedy show, and a damn simple one at that. After all it is a show about a family merely going about their day-to-day business, you don’t need to look farther than the title to see that much. It gives us well thought out characterisations, and interesting scenarios and situations, but will they be able to keep a hold of them through to the second season? The real test is not how the first season is received, but how they can top it with the second, third, fourth and so on and so forth, if they are lucky enough to see an abundance of network renewals.

Here’s hoping because the first season had me from the get go.

Rita Moreno

13 Reasons Why – A Story Tragic In Its Content But Strong In Its Message

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For the most part, people watch television for a bit of entertainment, to escape their daily lives and live vicariously through an array of characters, like badass police officers in NCIS or rulers of a kingdom in Game of Thrones, or maybe something lighter like awkwardly funny scientists in The Big Bang Theory. But this show is not among that list; it is much more than an escape into a different world. It is a powerful portrayal of a girl, Hannah Baker, played by Katherine Langford, tormented by bullies and loneliness eventually driven to suicide, and her explanation of why she did it, through a collection of mysterious tapes, each one dedicated to a person and what they did to her. 13 Reasons Why (B.Yorkey, Netflix, 2017) is a story about bullying, isolation, fear, and drunken power, presenting a widely prevalent and important social message that we must open our eyes to the destruction the halls of a high school can house and the teens that think they are above the law, both written and unwritten.

This show, based on the novel of the same name by Jay Asher, is a brutally truthful depiction of the damage that can be done by high schoolers, unto their fellow peers, because they have been conditioned to believe certain behaviour is normative or correct. You have two groups: the ones who act so because they are scared of the kings and queens of the school, and the kings and queens themselves, who believe they are immune to the rules everyone else must follow. This unwritten clique is the reason – housing the 13 reasons Hannah discusses on her tapes – why high school is such a menacing place. Asher’s novel released ten years ago, and the television adaptation just released on Netflix last week, but these issues have been circulating for years and years, and this story has been long overdue. Though, it has come at a time where bullying has taken many forms and faces, its almost as if the world is making it easier for bullies to do their dirty work, and even more so fearsome for victims to come out against it. But with the arrival of this show, all should watch and take the necessary action to make sure there is not a real-life depiction.

Asher went on record to say he wanted the graphic scenes in the novel to be truly represented in the television adaptation, thus, it is certified with an 18 rating, and may be distressing for young audiences. But a huge portion of the demographic aims itself at the parents, teachers and other school staff, older siblings/relatives of these children and/or teens. By association and word of mouth, the social message of 13 Reasons Why can enter the  of almost everyone and the issue of bullying, depression and suicide can be discussed and hopefully dealt with instead of becoming labelled with the dreaded word, ‘taboo.’ After watching all thirteen episodes in the space of a week, I was moved and disturbed by the story, characters and themes, episodes 9-13, in particular, where I actually found myself hating a few characters. It was a tough watch, every scene that conveyed an unsettling tone and displayed a character severely wrong in their action led to a reaction where I gasped or yelled, or even cried. It was a tough watch, but necessary indeed to deliver the message of the story, as Asher has recently argued himself.

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The structure the show takes is clever and artistically strong. Each episode is dedicated to one side of a tape, each side detailing the transpired events between Hannah and her perpetrator, a classmate or supposed friend. Therefore the past/present timeline of sophomore year, when Hannah started at Liberty High and junior year, the year she committed suicide is runs right through the first season, the difference noted by a slight change in filter. The past is brighter and tonally warm, while the present is dampened by a grey, blue tonal shift, symbolic of a before and after Hannah period in the lives of her classmates. I praise the cinematography of the entire season, it was well shot and transitioned, a clear-cut, simplistic justification of the two timelines, as well as including some artistically-motivated scenes, like the revert to present day, with the entry of a solemn Clay listening to Hannah’s voice, while she relays the events of a tape, in the past. The story follows one classmate in particular, Clay Jenson, played by Dylan Minnette, a shy introvert who was hopelessly in love with Hannah but never acted on it, worked with her at the local cinema and one of the rare ‘nice guys’ at the school. Next in line to listen to the collection of thirteen tapes, Clay presented himself as the only student with a heart, a conscience, to approach the contents of the tapes for what they were, dark secrets and incriminating behaviour. And from there it unfolds to reveal a year of rumours, harassment and destruction at the hands of people she thought to be her classmates or even her friends which led to suicide.

The first season ended in a number of ways, and without revealing too much, if there is a season two in the works, it would either be pretty dark or just become a different show. If events of the finale episode are picked up and developed then Hannah becomes a name in one huge investigation into Liberty High and its bleak attempt at being an establishment working to educate kids, both academically and socially. The hook that enticed audiences to the show would just disappear. And leaving that to one side, Clay’s character was left ambiguous in his connection to the tapes and their contents, but his own personal battles and persona in high school seemed to find closure, learning from Hannah’s last words, as he skipped class and just drove off to a day of hanging out with Tony, Skye and Brad. The final episode doesn’t resolve any of the issues that reveal themselves throughout the season one run, so a return for a second season is possible, but there are mixed reviews as to the point of it.

Therefore, if there is any criticism of the show it lies with the ‘too much too soon’ parallel – should the writers and producers have stretched the stories of the tapes across a number of seasons consisting of fewer episodes? Or is the show not expecting a season two at all, is it looking to enter the mini-series territory, despite bearing the bulk of thirteen, not 3 or 6, episodes. The question 13 Reasons Why leaves with its audiences is this; what is next?

Is British TV Underrated?

That all depends on what you class as ‘British TV’ and what does that even mean? Is there a bad connotation attached to the word ‘underrated?’

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America has given us a long list of greats when it comes to TV, covering a wide array of genre and form, from The X Files to Dallas, Cheers to Charmed and Twin Peaks to Seinfeld. And we cannot argue that the profundity of Hollywood has sent the film industry straight into our hearts, minds, and, of course, our pockets. In the face of film, TV always tended to drop and play around in the shadows, with a crossover between the two, in terms of story, cast and crew, just not being feasible and/or desirable. But now, TV has risen out of those shadows and made its own majestic mark in the showbiz, entertainment world, striding alongside film, shoulder to shoulder, stealing its actors, actresses, directors and producers, re-building film’s failed attempts into shows followed so intently by audiences it becomes part of their daily life to catch the latest episode. Now lets not diminish the power of the movies just yet, everyone wants to be a big-time, a-lister movie star, but what will they always remember? Where they got their start. For most of the latest crop, and even some from the past who always found their way back, that start was in TV! Just look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus; found fame on Seinfeld, went on to star in her own sitcom, The New Adventures of Old Christine which was cancelled after a very successful five seasons and once again rose to undeniable, unbeaten fame with the still going strong, Veep. She had film roles in between her TV, but always came back, that’s true loyalty to an industry still trying to flourish in the background of Hollywood. There are many more actors and actresses like Louis-Dreyfus, and because of them, the incredible talent in the writer’s rooms, and most notably in this era, the different viewing platforms, TV has risen to become one of the biggest, baddest industries across the world.

 

But, is it all because of American TV? Not a chance.

 

Some would believe it to be so, especially with most of Britain’s talent jumping ship and finding work across the pond, but that’s their prerogative, a person has to build their career somehow. Even writers, directors and producers have to join forces with their American counterparts in order to make their dreams a reality. It’s all part of the big rat race that is showbiz, and, to put it simply, life. This article isn’t predicated on picking at America’s successful TV industry and all the people behind it like a ratty child throwing their toys out the pram. No, it’s about the other successful TV industry and the many other people responsible for doing it – British TV. It is transcending boundaries and pushing past limits to create and present great stories, characters and messages to its viewers. Some examples are; Midsomer Murders, Peaky Blinders, Prime Suspect and Spooks, Goodness Gracious Me, Cold Feet, Only Fools and Horses and Absolutely Fabulous. These shows all represent Britishness – a way of life Britons can identify with, stories that most can discuss with friends or at parties and say; ‘did you see the latest Cold Feet? That reminded me of the time I…’ or even ‘just re-watched the first series of Spooks, it puts things into perspective…’ They are all still talked about, watched and enjoyed, but if you were to mention one of these names to someone abroad, would they know them straight off the bat? Maybe not these examples, but I can bet any money that if a person dropped these show titles, they would know: Downtown Abbey, The Night Manager, The Crown, Doctor Who, Sherlock, The Office, and why is that? Two words. US backing. So the moral of this article is that British TV has become lost to the power of the American dollar, and the solely British TV of today, like Mrs. Browns Boys, Citizen Khan, Mount Pleasant, Victoria, Death in Paradise and Vera, are going unnoticed by most of the world despite being brilliant in their own right. Thus, wouldn’t you say British TV is underrated?

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Victoria (2016-present)

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Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)

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Spooks (2002-2011)

We can’t fault those British TV shows that are backed by the States because they are brimming with all the good things TV has to offer; immersive storylines, identifiable characters, socio-political and cultural messages the world needs to have thrown in their faces. And a bonus perk is that these American-backed British shows are winning in the critical acclaim race, with The Golden Globes, SAGs and Emmy’s opening their doors to these British actors/actresses and creators by awarding them with the highest honours. Claire Foy is a recent Golden Globe winner for her work in The Crown, as is Tom Hiddleston for The Night Manager, and in the past years we have seen Wolf Hall win best Mini-series. We know it’s not all about accolades and critics and ratings play a big role in the success of a show, and from pulling in a viewership of 1.6 million, The Night Manager brought a surge of 70% since its premiere. So there work is obviously good as its applauded by the bigwigs and the people tune in to watch. But it’s not completely British, and the ones that are just seem to be hovering in and out of the shadows. Whether they want to come out of the shadows or not, whether they want America to shuttle them towards the limelight or not, they are definitely deserving of worldwide recognition, slots that are being filled up by other shows, and all because they have a foot in its success. Does that sound slightly nepotistic?

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The Crown (2016-present)

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The Night Manager (2016-present)

This may sound like an ‘axe to grind’ article against America and its TV industry but it is actually a call for the hidden gems of British TV to be understood and recognised as primetime players in the big game that is entertainment. And one way that it has already happened is through the art of streaming, where Netflix UK & Ireland stream a wide array of inherently British TV shows, for instance, The Thick of It, Top Boy, Skins, Benidorm, Outnumbered, Blackadder, Whitechapel, the list is endless. It is a big step, but it makes you wonder if all these shows are on the US Netflix, or the European version, and the people who get to watch need to have a subscription, so is it a big step after all?

To counter my own point, is it better for these shows to remain as they are, because if they were to lose their underrated status, would they still be those very British TV shows they started out as? If the whole world knew about them, and they became high-ranking entertainment shows, would the market of British TV cease to exist as just that, British? A market of its own? These conversations tend to strike a chord, but they are also a double-edged sword. So what is the right answer? Is there a right answer? No, there is just an opinion, a POV, and this article is mine. I believe the un-Americanised British TV is underrated, but I also don’t have a solution that won’t taint its reputation as good, solid entertainment, so maybe being underrated is its power, its tool to be a constant in the industry even after its airtime has concluded, because they are the ‘indies’ of TV, the hidden gems that just need to unearthed by the lovers of Television. I mean, even America must have its own version of this; it can’t all be surplus ratings, prestigious honours and huge fan-followings.

There has got to a balance.

 

Lion: An Inspiring Story reflecting on Hidden Hope and Love Embroiled in the Cruel Game of Life

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Lion, based upon the non-fiction autobiography called A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, is a story of finding your identity, an identity that faded away when one was in the system as yet another lost child. Lost hundreds of miles from home, and after months of living in poverty and government shelters, Saroo was adopted by a couple in Australia. When he grew up, he became determined to locate his family in India, to find his way back home, to find his brother, Guddu. But what he really yearned to find was himself. Lion is a truly heart-breaking account of a serious issue that is plaguing India, lost children, and Saroo inspires many with his story and the journey he embarked upon to no longer be a lost child.

 

The film begins in India, a peek into the life of a young Saroo whose childhood was so poverty-stricken that he and his family would have to share the smallest pot of milk and be denied seconds. Played by Sunny Pawar, a little kid who has stolen everyone’s hearts with his strong performance and happy-go-lucky persona posing on red carpets, Saroo hails from a poor background, the middle of three children abandoned by their father, forced to suffer the unknown fate of each of their days. The malnourished class of rural India suffers a great deal; cramped living conditions, little or no money, limited food and water, and just about no rights at all. Director Garth Davis doesn’t hold back, or trivialise these highly prevalent issues in demonstrating the true story of the lost Saroo, a little boy who cannot remember where he is from and how to get back, and the people or system he relies on to help him are unable to do so. Why is that? Because the system is flawed, his village could not be located, nor his mother and family. These are the negatives surrounding India, and they are not sugarcoated for the benefit of the films international audiences. All countries have their problems, and their setbacks, and Davis displays that clearly in this film, but he doesn’t forget to inhibit the wonder of such a nation in its aesthetics.

You can still see the beauty within the simplicity of Rural India and its culture; there is no grandeur in their homes or richness in their clothes, but the people find majesty in what they have, they find enjoyment in leaves and sand rather than material possessions. The artistry of the film shows this kind of man-made, self-sought out wonder, especially with young Saroo becoming mesmerised by a field of butterflies or when he mimics a man eating soup with a spoon he finds while living on the streets. There is a plain truth to the poor/rich divide, and that comes out in the sweet and innocent persona of a child who has practically nothing, loses it in an instant and suddenly has everything, and that truth is that it only takes one person to move past the corruption and extend some help to those in need. This story is a true showcasing of courage, determination and pure love within a time of isolation and turmoil, and the film does justice to it by running the thread of hope deep within themes and imagery we are saddened and haunted by.

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Dev Patel plays the older Saroo who travels along the Google earth images of India, retracing any steps he can remember, to locate his real family, to find the part of himself he has been lost to all these years. Nominated for all the major awards, including an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Patel gently drives his character to a point of almost no return after audiences see him in an array of emotions. Happy, sad, hopeful, distraught, angry, Saroo encapsulates all feelings, but remains grounded despite the probable reaction of loathing life and everything it has thrown in his lap. Patel brings a sense of realism to the role with his own background. His inability to speak the Hindi language, something the real-life Saroo forgot as he aged, works into his own grasp of the role and the non-Hindi speaking majority of the international audience are able to watch and experience with the character. Nicole Kidman, also critically acclaimed for her work in the film, embraced the role of the adoptive mother with a warm truth as she too has two children by adoption, correlating to her character. The bond lost between Saroo and his real mother, Fatima, was re-built between Kidman and Patel’s characters, a bond that wasn’t shaken or broken over time, nor was it forgotten after his pursuit of Fatima and his pre-lost child life. Lion does not only portray a bond between a person and his past, but also his present, that being the mother/son relationship, founded from the honourable, loving act of international adoption; giving a disadvantaged child a home.

The entirety of Lion felt like an immersive experience, we ran alongside young Saroo as he became lost, we travelled with him to Australia; we experienced everything as he did. By doing this, Davis allowed for Saroo Brierley’s story to remain hidden in the minds of Pawar and Patel as they enacted their roles as young and older Saroo – the audiences were not considered superior to the characters. Brierley’s A Long Way Home revealed itself page by page, just as a reader would experience and understand it, book in hand. We were watching a film, but we were also reading the story, not being told the story – the difference is key.

Dev Patel stars in LION

The ending is the pinnacle of the story, the moment Saroo had been waiting for, the discovery of his family’s fate since he became lost. The climatic point of the film is truly a beacon of answers at the end of a character journey darkened by enigma, and while I have been praising the film for its theme of hope and mode of inspiration, you must know how it ends by now. Saroo finds his mother; he reunites with the little village he grew up in, his sister, a country he felt disconnected from. The artistry imbued within the scenes filmed in India returns at the end where Saroo envisions his brother, Guddu, like a guardian angel taking him back home, and fulfilling the promise he couldn’t keep when he lost his little brother. The inspiration and hope behind Saroo Brierley’s story melded with the final moment of tragedy tells the audiences that the movies cannot always be a form of positive escapist art, and films are made to relay an important message to the world.

Lion encapsulates the positive and negative sides to the cruel game of life, where the themes and motifs of journey, identity, hope and inspiration can be used to educate the world on the act of saving a soul, no matter how it is done. The Brierley’s saved young Saroo through adoption, older Saroo saved himself through courage using the apparatus of Google Earth, and Guddu saved Saroo through whatever memories Saroo had left of him.

ARTtouchesART Collab ✍🏼️

I wrote two articles for the ARTtouchesART Film Blog recently, one is about the age of the remake, reboot and revival overpowering originality in Hollywood at the moment and the other is a look into the two sides of cinema in India: Bollywood and Independent. Have a read at these links below, hope you enjoy.

http://www.arttouchesart.com/welcome-to-the-age-of-recycled-entertainment

http://www.arttouchesart.com/the-fine-line-between-bollywood-and-independent-indian-cinema