In the days following my viewing of Richie Mehta’s Siddharth, I found myself wondering about my own family. How far would I go to find a lost loved one, even if the chances of finding them were slim? This is not something like Liam Neeson in Taken, where he’s a man with many assets and connections; the lead character of Siddharth has neither the money or the skills to carry out a worldwide search for the family member he’s lost. But he does exhaust every favor he’s owed and every penny he’s earned just to hold onto hope, however little there may be.
Siddharth puts us right in the poorer section of Delhi, where Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) has just sent his 12-year-old son Siddharth (Irrfan Khan) to work at a trolley factory in the Punjab town of Ludhiana, several hours away. It’s a direct contravention of child labor laws in India, but Mahendra’s job as a chain-wallah (he fixes zippers on anything – pants, bags, you name it) doesn’t bring in anywhere near the kind of money the family needs. Siddharth is meant to be gone for a month, returning to Delhi on the feast of Diwali; however, Diwali comes and goes with no sign of him. After more prodding and poking, Mahendra learns the truth, or at least some version of it: two weeks into his stint at work, Siddharth ran away.
Mahendra continues to prod and poke, testing loyalties and going where he shouldn’t – even the police tell him not to hope, as it’s been so long since his disappearance. Siddharth, in fact, may not have run away; he may have been sold by human traffickers. However, with limited resources, little to no money whatsoever, no photograph of Siddharth, and not even knowing how to spell his family’s names, Mahendra’s not going to stop, even endeavoring to go to a place that may not even exist on the slightest of hopes that Siddharth may be there. It’s built up as a mythical place where the lost go, almost a little like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, but slightly less decadent.
Through it all, we see the clear delineation of the poor and the rich. Mahendra’s not an educated man, but he does have a skill that everyone needs, no matter how cheaply they pay for his labors. The abject indifference to his plight from those with higher standing makes one think about the expendability of the poor, with one telling him to “just make another” child to replace the missing one. A policewoman admonishes Mahendra for sending his child away to work illegally. He is told by various people to remember his station in life, as if the old caste system were still in place, where he would be considered “Untouchable.” Even his father tells him to give up. But when all a father has to hold on to is hope, there’s not much that will dissuade him from doing what he needs to do.
Mehta’s fly-on-the-wall approach makes this vision of every parent’s worst nightmare all the more real, as he puts us square in the middle of a man driven to extremes as he looks for his lost son. Siddharth was inspired by a man Mehta encountered in 2010 in Delhi; to quote Mehta himself, “This film is my attempt to reconcile my extremely layered relationship with this circumstance. It’s a story made up in equal parts by tragedy and optimism, and I hope what we’ve done here transmits even a fraction of the confusion, sorrow, helplessness, and ultimately, hope that I felt in meeting this man.”
It’s the latter part of that last sentence that perfectly describes this movie. At times, Mehta’s Siddharth plays and feels like a documentary, with very little incidental music to help ease transitions or to amplify the on-screen drama. Truly, the performances by lead actors Rajesh Tailang and Tannishtha Chatterjee hit home and further the feeling that this is not just a movie; this is a statement on poverty and how it is dealt with in India by some. Many shots of candid street life abound in Siddharth, immersing you fully into a world where the worst can – and will – happen.
Now playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
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