The Call of Jalebis
by Olivia Holder
Lion (2016) tells a both heart-wrenching and heart-warming story of Saroo and his journey to find home. The opening of the film shows Saroo and his older brother, Guddu, stealing coal from a moving coal train in rural India. After evading the police and jumping from the moving vehicle, the two boys use the valuable coal to buy even more precious milk. As the boys buy their milk, the camera pans out revealing a large pan of sizzling jalebis next to the milk stall. The camera leaves the boys at the milk stall to show an extreme close-up of the tantalizing snack. The colors used in this film form a washed out palette of tired blues, overcast greys, and dusty browns. Against this backdrop the sizzling, vibrant red jalebis visually arrest both the viewer and Saroo.
Tugging on the older boy’s shirt, Saroo asks his brother to buy him some jalebis. With longing in his eyes, Guddu says, “One day I will buy you jalebis.” When the boys return home with the milk, their mother squeezes each drop of the two bags of milk into bowls for her three children, refusing any for herself. It is clear that in their poverty, food was scarce, milk precious, and luxuries like jalebis the stuff of dreams. Yet in this film scarcity, the precious, and dreams spell out a story of love.
As milk was won for the family through danger and risk, so too, the movie equated the provision of food will either love and safety or the lack thereof. Similar to the instance with the jalebis, throughout movie the director chose to highlight food through the use of color. In a heart-warming scene little Saroo walks up to his mother who spends her days as a laborer hauling grey rocks through a dusty quarry. Surrounded by a sea of depressing, endless grey, from behind his back Saroo pulls out a bright, sunny, yellow mango. With relish and endless smiles they share this small slice of happiness.
This story is thrust into motion when Saroo gets separated from Guddu at a train station and accidentally boards a train that takes him far from his family and all he knows. As he sits locked in the train for days, it becomes clear that this little boy is in a desperate situation as he will not be able to navigate his way back to his small rural village. The gravity of his situation is made clear when after a few days we see him gnawing at a dry, old apple core that he found underneath train bunk. In this scene the lack of adequate and safe food reveals his vulnerability.
Little Saroo is adopted by a family in Australia. When in college he makes many friends who are, like him, of Indian heritage. Early in the year, he attends a party at one these friends’ house, and, there, the smell of Indian food is in the air and Bollywood songs fill the room as friends gesture at some of the classic moves. Interestingly, Saroo is a foreigner to the culture who needs to be acculturated. After his friends fail to teach him how to eat with his hands and properly “use the naan like a spoon,” he is handed a fork. He is out of place until he leaves the table and walks into the kitchen.
As he turns from rummaging inside the fridge for a beer, the camera focuses on his face, allowing the viewer to watch his reaction change as he turns around. A look of shock and disbelief floods his face. The camera then switches to his line of vision. There on the table is a plate of bright red jalebis. Then we see Saroo’s face. Then his back as he is drawn toward the dish. The diegetic sounds of the music, laughter, and chatter of the party remain as the camera switches to a flashback of Guddu and little Saroo asking for jalebis. This continuation of sound shows that the camera has entered Saroo’s head and that stumbling upon this dish has triggered flashbacks. Next, the camera follows a jalebi in Saroo’s hand as it makes the journey to his mouth. We see him smell the snack deeply and then tentatively take a bite.
This encounter would be the impetus for further flashbacks that occur throughout the film. They remind Saroo of the enduring love of his mother and older brother. It is the dish that causes him to hear their voices calling to him as they search for their lost little boy. It is their love, as revealed through the jalebis, which would cause Saroo to search for home. The power of food to produce memories of home and love is the fulcrum of the tale. This one plate sends Saroo on a long and tedious journey as he searches for the village where he first saw that sizzling pan of vibrant jalebis.