Oscar-Nominated Film Lion Reflects Ministry to the Railway Boys of Kolkata

Railway boy in India

A burlap bag twitched on the train tracks. It only took my friend, Prabal Dey* a few seconds to realize there was a body inside.

A rival gang stuffed Johar,* who was high on glue at the time, into the sack and left him for dead. Johar was only nine years old. His mother abandoned him after his father passed away. Johar roamed the streets and eventually made his way to one of the largest train stations in India by jumping on moving trains and stowing away.

Lion Reflects Real Life

Memories of my days spent in Kolkata, India, with Johar have stayed with me. Sitting in the dark, cool movie theater watching Lion, an Academy Award-nominated true story about a young man’s search for family, I had flashbacks to my time in India.

I visited the same railway station the movie’s lead character, Saroo, wound up in after a 1,500-mile ride in a decommissioned train separated him from his brother and mother. In Kolkata, I spent time with boys, like Saroo, who were a long way from home—some by choice, and some by accident.

Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way from Home. Saroo’s true story and his real-life quest to find his birth family reminded me of boys like Johar, boys who Prabal and Debjani Dey* invited into their home and heart.

The Deys opened a Christ-centered hostel for railway boys in Kolkata. They spent time prayer walking and playing cards to build trust with boys who believed they couldn’t trust anyone. After building rapport with the boys, the Deys began to invite them to move off the rails and into the hostel. One by one, boys left the railway.

In the movie, Saroo spends the night in a passageway in the Kolkata train station sleeping next to boys and girls who were a lot like the ones I met on my visits to the station with Prabal. As I watched the movie, Johar’s story came back to first haunt me, and then to remind me of the hope and redemption that came at the climax of his story.

The Railway Boys of Kolkata

The Kolkata railway station is renowned for its railway boys. These boys, like Johar, have been abandoned, orphaned, or have run away because of abuse or out of rebellion. They call railway stations home. They join gangs, traveling the country by train, stealing from train passengers, and collecting water bottles to sell. In their free time, many sniff glue for a temporary high that leaves memory-stealing effects.

“None of us are blank pages—we have stains introduced by sin and ripped pages from heartache and anger. Yet, God chose us.”

It’s these boys who the Deys cared for in a similar fashion to John and Sue Brierley, the Australian couple from Tasmania who adopted Saroo. The Deys chose to love and care for Johar, but it took him a while to understand that he was wanted and wouldn’t be abandoned again.

For the railway boys, choosing to close painful chapters and continue into their life’s next chapter takes time and patience. Glue withdrawals hit Johar in the first couple of weeks after he left the railway and joined the Deys’ home. The Deys substituted food, sports, and television for glue. Johar struggled to control his anger, often masking it in silence.

Prabal said it took some time for the boys to obey adults who didn’t threaten to kill them as punishment for disobedience. Now, though it’s been several years, the boys still act out since so much in their life needs redeeming.

“Good food, good things can’t change them,” Prabal explained to me. “One thing can change them: Jesus. They are completely changed because of prayer. They can’t sleep if they don’t have prayer.”

Railway boys in Kolkota, India

Choosing to Love Blank Pages

Family and a sense of belonging are central to the human experience, which is what inspired the Brierleys to adopt Saroo and one other boy from India. And it’s what drove Saroo to spend month after month searching and eventually journeying to find his birth mother and brother in the film.

A beautifully poignant interchange between Saroo, played by Dev Patel, and his adoptive mother, Sue, played in the movie by Nicole Kidman, brought tears to my eyes.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t have your own kids,” Saroo tells Sue. “We weren’t blank pages, were we? Like your own would have been. You weren’t just adopting us but our past as well. I feel like we’re killing you.”

Sue responds, “I could have had kids.” This revelation stuns Saroo. “We chose not to have kids,” Sue continues, “We wanted the two of you. That’s what we wanted. We wanted the two of you in our lives. That’s what we chose.”

As Nicole Kidman delivered these words, I marveled at the beauty of adoption as a portrait of a Christian’s adoption into the family of faith. God sacrificed his Son for us so that we could be welcomed home. God chose us, with our sullied pasts and presents. None of us are blank pages—we have stains introduced by sin and ripped pages from heartache and anger. Yet, God chose us.

Unconditional Love Redeems a Painful Past

The couple I met in Kolkata—the Deys—made the same choice. They love children who aren’t blank pages. The pages of these kids’ lives are punctuated with rape, abuse, addiction, violence, and depression. In addition to caring for their own two children, they chose to open their hearts to boys and girls with broken pasts, because they see the potential for a beautiful future.

Two years ago, Johar never wore a smile and God hadn’t quite made an entrance into his life. Now, he participates in the group Bible study. When he plays worship music on the hostel’s guitar, a peaceful grin washes over his face.

He told me he’s choosing to accept his heavenly adoption and unconditional love from God the Father.

Lion is directed by Garth Davis and stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, and Nicole Kidman. The film is available to watch via iTunes and AmazonVideo, and for purchase on DVD and Blu-ray.

For more information on how you can help trafficked children, check out the work of Baptist Global Response.

*Names changed for safety.