BASED ON A TRUE STORY.
We see various shots of a city in Central India. Five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is standing on top of a hilltop, looking at a swarm of butterflies. His older 11-year-old brother, Guddu, encourages him to come along. Guddu sneaks on top of a coal train and steals coal. Saroo joins him. An officer yells at them and Saroo jumps off, after the train goes through a tunnel. Guddu applauds Saroo's leap.
Saroo and Guddu go into the village to sell the coal. We are told it is KHANDWA VILLAGE in the year 1986. Saroo sees Indian sweet delicacy "jalebi" for sale and notes that he wants some; Guddu tells him he will have some someday. At the moment, they are only able to get some milk and some money. They return to their village and find their little sister, Shekila and their mother Kamla. Kamla asks where they got the milk. They don't give her an answer.
The next day, Kamla leaves to collect rocks which she does for a living. Guddu is going to leave for a week to help lift bales of hay and Saroo asks him to take him along. Guddu first points out that Saroo has to stay with Shekila but he tells her their mom will be with her. He then tells Saroo it's too heavy for him to lift bales of hay so Saroo goes outside and lifts various objects, including his bike. Guddu finally agrees to let Saroo come along. They walk amongst the train tracks to the next city. They get to the nearby train station late at night, which becomes vacant after the last train of the night arrives. Saroo says he's tired and wants to sleep so he lays down on a bench. Guddu comments that Saroo is too young to be able to endure night work and he shouldn't have brought him. He tells Saroo he's going to check on the work site and says he'll be back for him. Guddu steps down into the now empty train tracks, with a giant water tower in the distance, while Saroo goes back to sleep. When he wakes up, his brother isn't there.
Saroo walks the train yard calling out for his brother. He looks around a train. The next morning, we see Saroo has crawled onto the train and fallen asleep. It barrels through India. He calls out for Guddu, assuming he must be on the train, but no one is there with him. Saroo quickly learns there are bars on the window and no way to exit in the compartment he's in. The train passes through a city and he screams at someone to help him get out; an Indian child just stares at him, unmoving. An announcement is made at train stations that the train is out of operation and not carrying passengers so the train will not stop. When the train finally does stop, it's in CALCUTTA, 1600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away from Saroo's home. Saroo is swarmed by people boarding the train as he steps off and calls out for his brother. He waits in line to speak to the sales agents at the ticket booths, telling them he is trying to get back to Ganestalay. They don't know where that is and they only speak Bengali so Saroo is pushed out of line by the other passengers.
Now stranded in Calcutta, Saroo tries to sleep in the train station tunnel with some other homeless children. But in the middle of the night, officers come and chase them. Only Saroo escapes because he's small enough to fit through a gap in the gate. He wanders through the city, alone, with a piece of cardboard to sleep on. A woman named Noor sees him and quickly learns he doesn't speak Bengali but Hindi, which she speaks as her second language. She takes him to her home and gives him some food and some soda pop, which he's seemingly never had before. He goes to bed and she tells him a friend named Rawa wants to meet him. Rawa visits and he cuddles next to Saroo, telling him hes going to take him to some friends. Before he exits, he asks Saroo to stand up and looks him over. He tells Noor that Saroo is the exact type of boy that they are looking for. The next morning, Noor tries to feed Saroo again but he no longer trusts her (it is implied that Noor and her accomplice plan to sell Saroo into sexual slavery). He runs out of her home before Rawa can return to claim him.
Two months later.
Saroo continues to wander the streets of Calcutta. He finds a large spoon in a pile of debris and keeps it. Saroo sits across from a café where a young man can be seen through the window, eating soup. Saroo copies his mannerisms which amuses the man, who goes outside and approaches Saroo. In the next scene, Saroo is being questioned by the police after the young man brings him to a local police station. They ask if Saroo knows the name of his village but they don't recognize the name Ganestalay. They ask if he knows the name of his mother and he says her name is 'Mum'. They can't fathom how far he traveled so they assume he lives near Calcutta despite not speaking the local language. A picture of him is taken and circulated around. Meanwhile, Saroo is sent to an orphanage to live with other children. He attends school on site. One boy is troubled and begins hitting his head against the wall and at night, they pull him from his bed and punish him outside, while the rest are supposed to be sleeping. To comfort themselves, all the children begin singing a song to themselves.
Skipping forward a few months later, it is March 1987. A social worker named Mrs. Sood comes to the orphanage and tells Saroo they've circulated his photo in the Calcutta newspapers which reaches 15 million people, but no one has been able to identify him. (They don't realize he's so far from home). They are not confident he will ever be reunited with his family so a nice Australian couple is going to adopt him. Saroo and other children that will be adopted are taught English, focusing on items that they'll encounter at the dinner table. They learn the words fork, spoon, and knife. Then salt. Saroo cheerfully identifies pepper. He is given a shirt that says TASMANIA, where he'll be moving to, and is put on an airplane. When he arrives in Australia, he meets his adopted parents, John Brierley (David Wenham) and his wife, Sue (Nicole Kidman).
Saroo is a bit shy at first but very open to living with the Brierleys. He is fascinated by the refrigerator filled with food. At dinner, he happily identifies pepper which charms them. Sue gives him a bath and he plays with bath toys for the first time. The three of them play Cricket on the nearby beach.
Two years go by and now they adopt a second boy from India, named Mantosh. But the young Mantosh is very standoffish and requires a lot more patience than Saroo. We now flash forward to 2008, 22 years after the story began. An adult Saroo (Dev Patel) swims in the ocean and then joins his adopted parents at dinner. Saroo now speaks English fluently and has an Australian accent. The family has invited Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) to the restaurant but he doesn't show up, which is typical for him. Saroo stops by Mantosh's home and tells him not to avoid their parents. They have a brotherly bond despite Mantosh being troubled and smoking dope and using drugs. He teases Saroo about his upcoming college course in Melbourne on hotel management.
Saroo attends that course and notices Lucy (Rooney Mara), a fellow student from the USA who seems similarly taken with him. She explains, in another class, that she is studying hotel management to provide people with service that makes them happy. Saroo tells the class he's trying to secure a profit for himself and everyone laughs. After class, Saroo and Lucy notice each other when they both walk to a party, on opposite sides of the street. She does a silly dance and the two end up arriving to the event together. The other students (some of whom are from India) ask Saroo where he's from and he says Calcutta.
All the students are having a good time and then Saroo goes in the kitchen and notes the same "jalebis" he told his brother he wanted at the beginning of the film, which causes him to have a flashback. He becomes upset and when he rejoins the group, he admits he isn't really from Calcutta but had got lost and couldn't remember the village where his family was. He says that he often thinks of his mother, brother, and sister and wishes he could find them. Someone suggests he research how fast trains go and estimate how many hours he was on the train to figure out how many miles he traveled. That can limit the train stations around Calcutta that he searches but someone else notes it would take a lifetime to search all the train stations in India. Another girl tells Saroo about Google Earth, a new site at the time which allows users to search the world through satellite images.
In 2010, Saroo begins doing the math to calculate how many miles from Calcutta he was, which allows him to draw a circle of possible locations he should be searching. Meanwhile, Lucy and Saroo begin dating and he brings her home to meet the family. But when Mantosh shows up, he is rude and makes Lucy uncomfortable. When Saroo chastises him for this, the unbalanced Mantosh goes crazy yet again, hitting himself at the table and causing a scene.
Saroo continues having flashbacks of his limited time with his biological family he hallucinates seeing his mother on the beach. He eats at the local mall food court and imagines his brother there, eating off peoples plates. Other parts of his childhood still remain a prominent part of his life, like a scar he has on his face we learn that he once carried a watermelon home and, because holding the fruit up shrouded his vision, he was hit by a motorbike, causing the contusion. Lucy points out that even if Saroo was able to find his former home, its no guarantee his family would be there and then the search would never end. Nonetheless he keeps obsessing over trying to locate his family. He looks on Google Earth and sees a water tower by a train station and flashes back to the one we saw at the beginning of the film. He continues scanning around and sees a train track running over a bridge, which reminds him of a similar spot by where he grew up. Yet none of these places are the village he was born in.
The lack of closure regarding his childhood causes Saroo to spiral downward emotionally. He and Lucy go to a party but he is distant and leaves her by herself. Outside, she is angry at him for abandoning her, telling him he needs to stop obsessing about finding his family. Saroo tells her he can never overcome the pain of knowing his mother and brother have wondered about him every day for 25 years. He breaks up with her, citing that he is too preoccupied with things to really give her the attention that she needs.
Two years later, in 2012, Saroo is still trying to locate his family via Google Earth. He has drawn possible routes via the train tracks on the giant map with the circled radius. But still he's not able to identify his village. John, Saroo's adopted father, comes knocking on his door but he doesn't answer. John shouts that he knows Saroo has dropped out of school and just wants him to talk to Sue and him. But Saroo remains shut off and doesn't reply.
While Saroo is in the down escalator at the mall, he passes Lucy, going up. They reunite and he tells her how his search is progressing. His parents now are invited to his home and he reveals the map that he's become obsessed with. They are relieved to know that that is what was preoccupying him, and it wasn't personal when he didn't talk to them for long periods of time.
Saroo visits his parents' home and has a conversation with Sue, asking her if she ever wishes she could have had children because then they wouldn't have had the baggage her adopted Indian sons do. She reveals she could have children and she didn't adopt him because she had no other choice. Sue explains that she married John because they were of like minds both agreed there were too many people in the world and they'd rather be parents to someone who needed saving. She talks of her own childhood with an abusive father and a vision she had at 12 years old of an Indian boy needing rescue. And how much she loves Saroo and Mantosh; even though they've been challenging, she is glad they are her sons.
One night, Saroo is on Google Earth looking at all the places inside the giant circle he's pinpointed as his possible village. He then starts spanning outside of the circle, where he had never looked before and discovers a hillside which he flashes back to as having stood on, watching butterflies (the first time we see him in the film). He scans across the map and sees a river that he used to swim in. Then he sees the train station with a water tower behind it. This leads him to the village that he used to run home to every night. It is a suburb called Ganesh Talai. He was mispronouncing it as a child calling it Ganestalay but it confirms that he's found the right spot. Saroo gets to excitedly tells Lucy that he's found his home.
Saroo travels to Ganesh Talai in hopes of finding his mother, sister, and brother, even though its been 25 years since he knows they last resided there. Now a full grown man, he travels down the same pathways that he used to, as a kid, until he gets to the Ganesh Talai village. He makes his way to where he used to live and sees it's now used as a pen for goats. He bangs on the wall, having a panic attack. A woman who resides there tries to talk to him but now he can't speak Hindi, only English. Saroo shows her the picture of himself as a child (that was taken by the police in Calcutta). A man who is multilingual approaches and Saroo tells him he is looking for his mom and his siblings, Guddu and Shekila. The man's eyes widen and he begins to walk away. Saroo watches him go and then the man calls for Saroo to follow him. The two make their way through the village until they stumble upon a group of women walking home. One of them is an older woman who is clearly his mother
He shows her the picture. She recognizes him as her son; they hug each other and cry. He is introduced to the now grown Shekila. Saroo's mom says she always held hope that he was alive. He asks where Guddu is but everyone becomes somber; he is told Guddu is with God.
Post-script tells us that Saroo's mother remained in the village so that he could find her again one day. Guddu died in 1986 when he left Saroo and walked on the train tracks; he was hit by a train, hence he never returned to claim Saroo. He also learned he had been mispronouncing his name his whole life his name is actually Sheru which means LION (and then we see the title of the film).
During the closing credits, we see footage of the real Saroo introducing the real John and Sue Brierley to his birth mother in the Khandwa Village.