The South African drama Lucky, directed by Avie Luthra, opened in theaters in South Africa in 2011. Unfortunately, the moving tale of an orphan boy seeking refuge in the home of a cantankerous and racist Indian woman, never made it to theaters in the U.S.
Lucky for you however (pun intended), the film is now streaming on Netflix.
The bereaved 10 year-old, whose mother dies of AIDS, leaves his native Zulu village to start a new life in the city. He is not-so-welcomed by his uncle, whom –through a cassette tape -we soon find out was asked by his late sister to provide him shelter and an education with the money she has left him.
Lucky, played by first timer Sihle Dlamini, isn’t expecting much more than a roof over his head and an education, but after a confrontation with his ill-natured uncle, Lucky begins to lurk around the home of an elder Indian neighbor named Padma, played wondrously in all its human complexity by Jayashree Basavra. It’s not clear why Lucky sets his eyes on this shrew of a woman. He watches her get bullied by black South Africans; it’s obvious she is prejudiced, and, perhaps, she has unconsciously invited this aggression and scorn into her life.
The lonesome, resentful woman is mean spirited towards her new young visitor, and it’s heartrending to see Lucky fail at his attempts to appease her. He offers to clean her apartment for shelter. She starts allowing him to sleep in her terrace. There’s also a language barrier aside from the obvious cultural one: Lucky speaks Zulu, while Padma speaks Hindi.
Eventually, after facing the rage of her uncle, who has come banging at her door looking for Lucky, Padma begins to show signs of compassion for the boy, even if her self-interest is at the core. Padma only socializes within her Indian community in the city, even if it’s only seldom. It is only at the advice of another Indian woman from a restaurant she patronizes, that she realizes she could earn a monthly stipend if she becomes the boy’s guardian.
For most of the film, you yearn for this young, grief-stricken boy to be loved and embraced like he should to the viewer’s frustration. Can someone hold him; give him a hot plate of food and a comfortable bed? Lucky’s vow for full independence is unnatural at his age; he has kept his feelings subdued in order to survive, and watching him express the natural need for familiar affection and normalcy is pitiful.
Padma is not affectionate, and she doesn’t suddenly become so whatsoever, at least not in the conventional sense. She does however, become invested in the safety and well-being of her unlikely “son” when she helps Lucky in the search of his real father.
Thanks due to nuanced and understated, yet powerfully emotive performances by the leads, especially Basavra’s Padma (one of the most realistic performances I’ve seen on screen in recent memory, especially from an actress who has been in 2 previous films), Lucky is both touching and believable without being heavy-handed and sappy. When the film really tugs at your heartstrings, it feels overdue; the sentimentality is welcomed and satisfying, especially watching Padma put her guard down and open up to Lucky, as the unlikely pair begin to genuinely and selflessly care for each other in spite of all else.