By Pauline Forté
For Western viewers, the beginning of SIDDHARTH will appear as if it took place on a different planet——a world they do not understand.
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A small, basic room in New Delhi with no more than a mat on the floor, a sink and a few cooking utensils make up the home of 12-year-old boy Siddharth (Irfan Khan), his parents and his little sister Pinky (Khushi Mathur). Their world is devoid of financial resources many of us take for granted.
At first, this tragic and moving film appears to be about Siddharth’s disappearance two weeks after he was sent away by his father, Mahendra Saini, to work in a trolley factory. But in actuality, SIDDHARTH is not about child trafficking or abduction, says Toronto-born director Richie Mehta. “It’s about economics.”
Anyone can relate to a tragedy such as the loss of a son. But the underlying statement in Mehta’s second feature film is the limitations imposed on a family dealing with a tragic situation and the means they resort to to negotiate it. Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) is a chain-wallah who fixes broken zippers on the streets and who feels his financial burdens will be alleviated once he sends Siddharth for work in a difference province. What follows is Mahendra’s desperate search across India for his missing son.The film is slow-paced, reflecting the time it takes Mahendra to come to terms with his son’s disappearance, which he feels responsible for, and the process he engages to look for him. Tailang, a well-known Delhi theater actor, and Tannishtha Chatterjee (BRICK LANE), who plays Suman, the mother, deliver poignant performances. Both very composed and sincere, they embody the conditions of sorrow and desperation when confronted with the sad reality of Siddharth’s abduction, but also resilience and love when going about finding their son despite their lack of resources.
Mahendra travels long hours by bus to the trolley factory in Ludhianna and later undertakes a 16-hour train journey to Mumbai in the hope that he’ll bring Siddharth home with him. An especially touching scene comes when Mahendra trains his wife in the zipper repair business so that she can earn some money while he’s away. Their willingness to teach and learn given the circumstances, with a smile on their faces, is heart wrenching.
“It’s a guy going on a journey, which we can understand, but the issues he faces in his journey are ones that don’t apply to you and me. He has no internet, no photograph of his son and doesn’t know how to use a mobile phone,” says the 35-year-old writer, director and editor. “We take for granted our understanding of the world – the information we can access in five minutes. We know more about the economics of the world than he’ll ever know.”
Mehta’s first feature film, AMAL (2007) was named one of the top 10 Canadian films of the decade by Playback Magazine and won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the 2008 AFI Dallas International Film Festival.
SIDDHARTH had its World Premiere at the Venice Days Film Festival 2013 and its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013. Both SIDDHARTH and Mehta’s latest sci-fi feature film, I’LL FOLLOW YOU DOWN, starring Haley Joel Osment, Gillian Anderson, Rufus Sewell and Victor Garber, will be out in cinemas this June.
According to Mehta, who was trained in science fiction fantasy, SIDDHARTH and I’LL FOLLOW YOU DOWN aren’t that different. “The environment in SIDDHARTH is totally foreign for Western viewers, so they’re still creating a world, like in a sci-fi movie,” he says.For Metha, whose family is originally from the Indian province of Punjab and who spends several months in India every year, SIDDHARTH is his way of showing different forms of human compassion. Missing children is a sad and lucrative business in India, feeding the organ trade, sex trade and child labor. Many movies are made about these issues. “What we haven’t seen is a film where people are being nice to each other, showing a type of goodness in an environment where you wouldn’t expect people to be helpful,” Mehta says.
When Mahendra goes to the police station to file a report, on the advice of a police officer acquaintance, he gets help from a female police officer after initially getting scolded. “You people never learn. First you make the mistake, then you cry about it. Child labor is against the law… You could send him to school […] Educate him, so he can become something,” she says.
Based on a real-life story, SIDDHARTH acts as a tool for cultural diplomacy. While an inherently Indian story, the film is shot in a more European or American style of cinema, incorporating Western aesthetics. “You have a chance to communicate to both sides,” Mehta says.
Normally such movies are shot in a controlled environment but for SIDDHARTH, Mehta put the characters in the real environment and had them completely integrated. “You plan every shot when there’s a dialogue. And when characters don’t speak, you shoot so much footage so that you can integrate it into the planned segments. It’s a different style from anything I’ve ever tried,” he says.
The film indeed features a great deal of busy street shots – one too many perhaps. It takes Mahendra an unrealistic amount of time and questions to customers and officers to find out the nature and location of Dongri, a vague place where stolen kids are taken. So many people have mobile phones, plus there are lots of cyber cafes in India, that it shouldn’t take so long for someone to find Dongri by doing a quick internet search.
The painful search for information, however, highlights Mahendra’s helplessness in coping with a situation far beyond his limited world. The world is much bigger than he understands and he can’t figure it out.
As his search continues, he hopes his son will return one day. But, as young kids on the street in Mumbai innocently tell him, “Maybe he got lucky and left this world.”
SIDDHARTH is featured, along with 11 other films, as part of this year’s World Cinema category.
DALLAS STAR AWARDS
Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first African-American President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and only the third woman to hold the office.
John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren & Stimpy, is the recipient of the 2014 Texas Avery Animation Award presented by REEL FX.
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