Directed by Richie Mehta.
Written by Mehta, Maureen
Dorey and Rajesh Tailang.
Hebrew title: Siddharth.
96 minutes. In Hindi, check with
theaters for subtitle information
Siddharth is a straightforward film that tells the story of one Indian family’s everyday tragedy, with a grace and simplicity that at times brings to mind the Italian Neorealist filmmakers of the 1940s.
Directed by Indian-Canadian Richie Mehta, the movie opens as Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang), a Delhi “chain wallah” (a man who repairs chains, zippers, etc.) puts his 12-year-old son, Siddharth, on a bus. Siddharth is headed to work in a factory for a distant relative. If you’re thinking that maybe it isn’t the best idea to send a 12-year-old boy off to work in parts unknown, that isn’t anything that hasn’t occurred to his parents. But they don’t live in a world where there are many good choices, only bad and worse ones. Mahendra desperately tries to feed his family on the approximately $4 a day he earns fixing zippers and working in a garment factory. India may be changing, and the family owns a cell phone, but the parents are illiterate and only their daughter, Pinky (Khushi Mathur), really understands how it works. When Siddharth doesn’t return home for the holiday of Diwali, his parents are understandably anxious.
Mahendra’s wife, Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), knows something is wrong the moment her son doesn’t show up and they go to the police.
But the police are frustratingly unhelpful – at first, they are barely even interested. When Mahendra finally finds a policewoman who will listen to him, she heaps scorn on him for the bad choice he has made and can’t undo. When it turns out that Mahendra, who isn’t even quite sure of his son’s age, doesn’t have a picture of Siddharth, you begin to realize how staggering the odds are against Mahendra’s ever seeing his child again. But Suman won’t give up, and she sends Mahendra to search for their son all over India.
Anyone who watches CNN or reads a newspaper knows how scary this scenario is and how horrible the possible outcomes are. What this movie does – brilliantly – is to humanize the issues it dramatizes.
The film is made up of details, and these details create characters who are human beings and not just onedimensional victims. Siddharth is particularly effective in showing that these parents love their children and want the best for them. The fact that they don’t have family photos or even know exactly when their children were born might seem incomprehensible when judged by Western standards, but Mahendra and Suman are intelligent and sensitive people. While at the beginning, you may judge Mahendra harshly as the policewoman does for sending his son off to work, as the story unfolds it becomes tragically clear that any of us might do the same if we lived as they do.
Hearing the name of a place where his son might be, Mahendra asks every passing stranger if they know where it is. He even ends up paying a group of thugs an exorbitant sum for the right to ply his trade in front of the train station, so he will have even more opportunities to speak to travelers and ask for information. When he takes a journey to Mumbai to search for Siddharth, he must borrow money to cover the train fare and find work for Suman. Every action he takes has a cost, and the film makes us understand that, just as Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief made clear what it really meant for one father to lose his bike.
Siddharth is Slumdog Millionaire without the Bollywood ending. India here is neither horrible nor exotic. It’s just a dirt-poor place where people struggle to live.
There are a few technical glitches that betray the film’s low-budget origins, and the score is intrusive and swells up from time to time, cuing us in on how we should feel. But the performances, especially by the two lead actors, are extraordinarily moving and pitch perfect. Their intensity, combined with the detailed, pared-down screenplay, give the film a feeling of great urgency and truthfulness.