It’s easy – too easy, maybe – to imagine or fantasise what you might do as a parent if your child disappeared: the lengths you would go to, the mountains you would move, the obstacles you would overcome. But what if your resources were limited, your communication skills truncated, the information at your disposal questionable? How unwavering would your determination remain in the face of such adversity? That is the question we’re asked to contemplate in the new film by Indian-Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta’s new feature.
Set in contemporary India, Siddharth tells the story of Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang), a downtrodden man, humbled by circumstance, who ekes out a living as a zipper repairman. Times being tough and money being too short to support his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee), daughter and teenage son, Mahendra reluctantly decides to send the latter, the eponymous Siddharth (Irfan Khan) to the distant city of Ludhiana to work in a factory owned by Om Prakash (Amitahb Srivasta) a connection of Mahendra’s brother-in-law, Ranjit (Anurag Arora). However, when Siddharth fails to return for a holiday a month later and Prakash claims the boy ran away from the factory, Mahendra resolves to find his son – lost as he is among the teeming millions of India.
An odyssey through what is, to Western eyes, almost unbearable poverty and squalor, Siddharth is nonetheless an affecting portrayal of paternal love set against the grim realities of urban Indian life. As a protagonist, Mahendra is almost comically underprepared for the mission ahead of him; he can only guess at his boy’s age, doesn’t own even a single photo of him and finds even operating a cellphone a monumental challenge. Still, he perseveres, tracking vague clues and rumours from New Delhi to Ludhiana to Mumbai in search of a semi-mythical place called Dongri, where abducted children are said to end up.
By shooting in the streets of India, Mehta gives his film an incredible sense of vibrancy and immediacy – the feeling that the story, though we know it to be scripted, is occurring in a tangible, dynamic world where anything can happen at any time. This also helps to leaven the film’s occasional lapses into ‘social cause of the week’ territory; in lesser hands, Siddharth could have felt like slum tourism but – intrusive score aside – Mehta manages to stay above such indulgences for the most part, keeping his story firmly centered on Mahendra’s emotional and physical journey. Haunting and at times almost unbearably sad and confronting, Siddharth is a challenging look at urban India and the plight of too many children who reside there.