Siddharth

October 11, 2014
Rajesh Tailang in 'Siddharth' (2013)
Rajesh Tailang in 'Siddharth' (2013)

Indian movies conjure up visions of extravagant song and dance routines, broad comedy and incandescent melodrama. Yet as the subcontinent grows wealthier and more cosmopolitan it is crafting a national cinema that transcends the Bollywood stereotypes. Increasingly it is the realist films of Satyajit Ray (1921-92) that seem to point the way forward, even though the director was a prophet scorned in his own land. To his admirers, Ray displayed the same kind of humanism one finds in the work of Jean Renoir or Vittorio De Sica. To his detractors, his films feel unbearably slow.

Earlier this year Ritesh Bhatra showed that an Indian film director can capture a popular audience at home and charm viewers around the world. Bhatra’s debut feature, The Lunchbox, blended Ray’s fastidious realism with a lightness of touch that most film-makers fail to achieve over the course of an entire career.

Now Canadian-Indian director, Richie Mehta, brings us Siddharth, the tale of a poor chain-wallah searching for his missing son. It is a melancholy story with none of the gentle humour of The Lunchbox, but nonetheless compelling. Mehta’s style is dignified and understated in a land where vulgarity and exaggeration are the staple ingredients for box office success. He is supported by fine performances from Rajesh Tailiang in the role of the father, Mahendra; and Tannishtha Chatterjee as his wife, Suman.

If you are wondering what a chain-wallah does it is a career with long hours and few prospects. Every day Mahendra wanders the streets of Delhi, hawking his skills with a megaphone. He is basically a small-time handyman who repairs zippers, clips, chains, and similar items. He is lucky to clear 250 rupees a day, which is less than AUD $5.00. From this paltry income he has to support his wife and two small children, and pay rent in their one-room apartment.

When his brother-in-law, Ranjit (Anurag Arora) tells him that a distant cousin in the Punjab has factory work for the small hands of a boy, Mahendra cannot pass up the opportunity. He puts his 12-year-old son, Siddharth (Irfan Khan), on a bus to Ludhiana.

Weeks later the family are awaiting Siddharth’s return, but he never appears. As the days go by with no word from the boy, they become increasingly concerned. Ranjit puts them in touch with the factory owner, Om Prakash (Amitabh Srivasta) who tells them, in an irritated voice, that Siddharth ran away.

There is no recourse but for Mahendra to go in search of his son. He has to borrow the bus fare from a group of friends and economise however he can. In Ludhiana a boy who shared a room with Mahendra’s son tells how one day Siddharth went out to buy food and never came back. Mahendra finds his worst fears being confirmed, as it appears that Siddharth has been kidnapped.

The rest of the film details Mahendra’s desperate quest to find his child. He has almost no leads apart from the vague idea that missing children often end up in a place called Dongri, which turns out to be a suburb of Mumbai.

As the search continues Mahendra encounters a range of responses. Many people are rude to him and unconcerned about the boy. He finds that his brother-in-law knew about the disappearance two weeks ago, but said nothing. Even the police tell Mahendra that he has only himself to blame for sending his son to work rather than school. Yet there is a lot of sympathy as well, sometimes from unexpected quarters.

The inevitable problem is the chain-wallah’s poverty. He cannot afford to carry on a ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ search and still support his family. There are limits to the amount of support he can call on from friends, and even from the police. Mehta has no need to editorialise about the life of the poor in India, it’s sufficient to let viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Mahendra is one insignificant man among millions, his son an unfortunate statistic. A quick search on the web reveals that 50,000 children go missing in India every year – that’s one every eight minutes. It’s horrible for Mahendra to contemplate Siddharth’s fate, although one of his neighbours insists on listing the possibilities. He may have been sold to foreign foster parents; made a slave to the sex trade; or put to work as a beggar, after appropriate mutilations.

It is easy to imagine how Siddharth might have become a dark, gruesome saga. Instead, Mehta dwells on the aching sense of emptiness and frustration that afflicts Mahendra and his family. They do not know what happened to their son, while the world is indifferent to a tragedy that is too commonplace to sustain much attention. Perhaps the title offers a glimmer of hope. Siddharta was the name of the Buddha, who left his family and found Enlightenment.

Siddharth
Directed by Richie Mehta
Written by Richie Mehta & Maureen Dorey
Starring Rajesh Tailing, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Anurag Arora, Khushi Mathur
India/Canada, rated M, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th October, 2014.