One of the magical properties of cinema is its ability to transport the viewer to a place in the world they would otherwise never visit. Director/co-writer Richie Mehta’s remarkable Siddharth drops viewers into the impoverished section of Dehli, India, for an urgent drama about a family crisis. Inspired by a true story, the film’s authenticity is its strongest asset.
Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) sends his 12 year-old son, Siddharth (Irfan Khan) away to go work in a factory to earn extra money for his sister’s dowry. One month later, Siddharth is supposed to return home, but he does not arrive. Mahendra and his wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) grow increasingly more concerned. They contact Ranjit (Anurag Arora) who set up the job for Siddharth. Mahendra learns that Siddharth “ran away” from his job two weeks ago. He contacts the local police. It is likely that the child was abducted.
Siddharth chronicles this father’s painstaking efforts to reunite his family. Without a photo of his son, Mahendra tries to locate Siddharth by tracking down the factory owner. The trip is expensive, and Mahendra borrows money to make the necessary journey.
What emerges is not just a neorealist drama in the vein of The Bicycle Thief, but a portrait of a man whose pride and faith and values are tested by his circumstance. When Mahendra asks for help, he is hopeful, even as he expresses his despair. His dignity makes him likeable, even when he is mostly naïve. There are times when Mahendra relies on the kindness of strangers, and moments where he seems to be humiliated. But Siddharth also shows a sense of community where folks, such as the manager of the local Internet café, want the best for Mahendra, and express their concern about his troubles.
As his journey takes him from Dehli to Mumbai, Mahendra becomes as determined to find his son even as he is despairing at his situation. Mehta emphasizes the financial strain of the literally and figuratively poor Mahendra’s situation by allowing viewers to agonize over his every expense–as when the camera focuses briefly on a taxi meter.
Siddharth is propelled by the efforts of Mahendra and Suman to take the matter of finding their son into their own hands. It is a quite poignant to watching their hopes wax and wane throughout the story.
In one of the best sequences in the film, Mehta features a montage where Mahendra searches frantically for Siddharth, and only sees children he thinks are his son. When he breaks down in complete anguish, thinking he may never see his child again, it is truly agonizing. Tailang’s portrayal throughout the film is exceptional; his natural performance conveys Mahendra’s feelings as he experiences an emotional rollercoaster.
Siddharth is a basic quest narrative, but the film’s complete immersion in impoverished India makes it special. Moreover, the issues Mehta raises about the nefarious business of human trafficking, child labor, and the sexual exploitation of children, come across in bold relief in this impressive film.
Siddharth opens today at the Ritz Bourse.