Siddharth Written and directed by Richie Mehta; with Rajesh Tailang, Tannishtha Chatterjee
“Why else have a son if not to work him?” – this is what Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) asks the policewoman to whom he reports the disappearance of his son, 12-year-old Siddharth, nicknamed Siddhu, who was sent to work for a month at a nearby factory that hires children and never returned. The policewoman asks disapprovingly whether the boy would not be better off in school, but for Mahendra, as for millions of other fathers in India who can barely feed their families, that is not a real option.
When he calls the factory owner, the latter tells him brusquely that Siddhu ran away two weeks ago, costing his employer the price of a replacement. But Mahendra does not believe him. His son, he says, is as responsible as he is about work; he would never walk out that way. Mahendra, who makes a living fixing zippers and doing odd tailoring jobs, becomes increasingly worried as he hears stories of child workers being abducted and sent out to the streets as beggars or even prostitutes. Siddhu’s mother (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who seems more resilient than her husband, wants them to go search for him. But they have no money for travel and not a single photograph of Siddhu.
When Mahendra describes Siddhu’s height, hair and skin color to the policewoman and some other people, their response is always the same: that’s what all 12-year-old Indian boys look like. The fact that lower-class Indian children are a replaceable commodity gains special emphasis when the factory owner tells Mahendra that if Siddhu does not turn up, he and his wife can always produce another child (they already have a younger daughter, but as a girl she cannot help provide for them).
Mahendra’s friends give him the money he needs for the journey on which he embarks to search for his son.
“Siddharth” – directed by Richie Mehta, born in Canada to immigrant Indian parents – follows the search in a direct realistic style, unfolding Mahendra’s anguished experiences in a dry, unsentimental way that only makes the result more powerful. Beyond the private story it tells, “Siddharth” is a protest against the exploitation of Indian children as cheap labor. Mahendra is not a bad father; what seems like a certain cold indifference in him is really the result of the circumstances in which he is trapped, where the only goal he can worry about is his family’s survival. His quest takes him from the city where Siddhu was working – where he hears from his son’s friend that Siddhu could not have run away, because he only went out to buy food and left all his belongings behind – to Mumbai and various centers of lost or abandoned children. At one moment, we even see Mahendra in the street suddenly think that he has found his son, only to realize that the boy he sees is not him; at that moment he grasps that he himself does not quite remember what his son looks like, having had so little free time to spend with him.
“Siddharth” is a film whose power lies in its simplicity. It has a didactic agenda, but Mehta does not overdo it, handling his message with restraint and delicacy.
Mahendra continues to look for his son, returning home every once in a while to his worried wife and his friends and going back to work until the moment he discovers some new possible clue to Siddhu’s whereabouts. His journey exposes us to a harsh economic, social and human reality. We see Delhi and the other locations Mahendra visits not as exotic tourist sites, but as places where life is excruciatingly difficult. This is a journey to an India where survival is the only goal, a reality that Mehta captures with great sensitivity while avoiding cheap emotional manipulation.
“Siddharth” is a portrait of a place and of the harshness that place breeds – a harshness which is only a façade hiding emotional and existential fragility. Mehta’s screenplay is deftly written, and his fine direction shows influences of Italy’s postwar cinematic neorealism. In its simple, direct, dry way, “Siddharth” is a heartrending picture, and it goes about breaking our hearts with impressive decency. Of all the recent films about the suffering of children in both the well-fed and the hungry parts of the world, this is one of the most deserving.