SIDDHARTH (2013, India/Canada)
SUNDAY 16 August 10.00 am
TUESDAY 18 August 8.15 pm
RUNNING TIME 96 minutes
A father sets out on a journey across India in search of his son, whom he has sent to work in a distant factory. When twelve year old Siddharth fails to return home for the Diwali holiday, fears arise for his safety.
REVIEW BY STEPHEN HOLDEN
Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang), the meek, sad-eyed protagonist of Richie Mehta’s touching film, is a resident of New Delhi, with a wife, a son approaching puberty and a younger daughter. He ekes out a living on the streets fixing zippers, touting his service through a bullhorn, but business has been bad. In the film’s opening moments, he says goodbye to his son, Siddharth, who is leaving on a bus to work in a factory in distant Ludhiana. The boy’s employer, Om Prakash (Amitabh Srivasta), is a distant cousin of Mahendra’s brother-in-law, Ranjit (Anurag Arora). Both are hardened in ways that Mahendra is not.
Siddharth is scheduled to return home for a holiday after a month away, but when Mahendra meets the bus, he is not on it. Mahendra contacts Om Prakash, who angrily complains that Siddharth ran away two weeks earlier. He would never do that, Mahendra insists. Several days pass and Mahendra, increasingly worried, consults a traffic cop, who directs him to the police station where Roshni (Geeta Agrawal Sharma), the brusque official in charge of missing persons, scolds him for violating child labour laws. Had he sent Siddharth to school, his education would have been paid for by the government, she says, and scoffs, “You people never learn.”
Mahendra mumbles helplessly: “Business was slow. We needed the money.” He doesn’t have a single photo of his son; he can only guess that his age is 12 or 13; and he can barely operate a cellphone. Borrowing money from friends, Mehendra sets out to find his son, first making the 200-mile trip to Ludhiana, where he discovers from the boy’s roommate that Siddharth left behind his possessions. It is a sign that he might have been abducted, a too-common fate in India, where thousands of children are kidnapped and dispatched to the streets to beg. The roommate offers one other possibility. Siddharth may have ended up in Dongri, a place some people have heard of, although no one seems to know where it is. In Mahendra’s mind, it becomes a mythic destination: the end of the rainbow, the place where dreams come true.
On one level, Siddarth is a clear-eyed neorealist film in the tradition of Satyajit Ray. It gazes unblinkingly at the extremely bare living conditions of Mehendra and his family. Its portrayal of impoverished, careworn people barking at one another and protecting their territory in a daily struggle is bracingly hard-headed. The only sign that the movie has a bleeding heart is a too-pretty score by Andrew Lockington that is glaringly out of step with the film’s vision of urban poverty. As Mahendra’s quest widens, eventually leading him to Mumbai, he begins to lose his grip. The trip becomes a bitter learning experience for a man who, although only in his 30s, has retained many of the qualities of a child.