Siddharth is a film that’s been long overdue. It is one of the more accurate and authentic representations of the contradiction that is contemporary India – where the unconditionally ideal romanticism of the people is unduly crushed by the harshness of circumstantial reality. It doesn’t pander to the oft misrepresented Western stereotype of India, nor does it unnecessarily glorify the nation’s cultural diversity in an effort to mask the cruelty of the landscape. In not doing either, the film transcends a mere representation and becomes an authentic experience; an experience which highlights the cultural contradictions of India without a stamp of judgment – either of approval or disapproval.
Siddharth tells the story of a father, Mahendra Saini (played by Rajesh Tailang), searching for his lost son, after he sent him away to work in a factory at the age of 12. Mahendra is a broken zip mender by profession, and struggles to make ends meet on a daily basis. He doesn’t have a photo of his son, nor does he know how to use a mobile phone properly. In search of his son, Mahendra meets a variety of people, from different social structures, as he and his family struggle to grieve and survive in Indian society at the same time. Will he succeed in finding his son?
Canadian born film-maker Richie Mehta, whose first film Amal, focused on the life of an autorickshaw driver, moves forward his examination of economic disparity and contradiction in India with this film. He focuses his lens on those who have become lost in the crowd. Those people, who by their own admission, would term themselves thoroughly ordinary and uninteresting. They don’t have grand, escapist narratives to tell, just the reality of surviving till the next day.
Mehta’s argument is economic, rather than social. The film focuses on the reality of economic disparity in India, rather than social glorification or demonification. Mehta distances himself from any form of social judgment and lets the audience make up their own minds. For Saini’s family, the daily economic hardship is an empirical reality. This isn’t a romanticised ideal lifestyle. Siddharth is a nostalgic ode to the Golden Age of Indian Cinema, when films that depicted the economic disparity in the social strata of Indian society were an acute reflection of the social circumstances of the majority of people in India.1
The scattered scenes where Mahendra meets with an assortment of characters in search of his lost son are remarkable. They work wonderfully as a form of nuanced, social commentary. There is the owner of the factory where Siddharth was sent to work, who just wants Saini to stop harassing him and “make another” kid. There are a group of kids who like playing street cricket outside Mahendra’s house and keep hitting the ball inside the house. There is the police, who aren’t much help without a photograph of Siddharth, but they do their best in socially admonishing Mahendra for his actions. However, where there is ridicule, there is also endearment. Mahendra’s constant public ridicule is wonderfully contrasted by the unconditional love and adoration by those close to him. This contrast is extremely powerful and effective as it positions the audience on the side of Mahendra, whom we wouldn’t have found sympathetic after his initial act of sending his son away to work.
Rather than focusing on grandiose, generalised social commentary, Mehta instead focuses on the tiny details that tell us a lot more. Mahendra has to rely on his young daughter Pinky to even make a phone call on his mobile phone, which doesn’t even know how to use. His main source of information is the people, who often mislead and/or misdirect him. He often gets lost. He doesn’t know about the internet. These little details go a long way in establishing the contextual reality. Mehta doesn’t suger-coat the reality. He presents the situation as it is.
The music compliments the mood of the film. Andrew Lockington’s score is hauntingly ethereal. The use of the folk song, “Come Back To Our Land” has a special metaphorical meaning within the film. The scene where Mahendra sings the folk song, after getting drunk with his friends is a beautifully constructed and acted sequence. These little details elevate the film to a higher plane and truly touch the audience. The snippets of music segments by the late composer R.D. Burman, one of India’s musical pioneers, add to the distinctive aesthetic value of the film.
Mehta showcased his affinity towards thespians from theatre and the stage by casting many graduates of the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, in his first film Amal. He continues his association with NSD with Siddharth. Rajesh Tailang, a graduate of NSD, plays the father Mahendra Saini, wrestling with the economic reality of his family and the guilt of what may have befallen his son due to his decision to send him away. Tailang’s grounded and understated performance is at once refreshing and awe inspiring. He effortlessly glides from one emotion to the next, showing an incredible range, without ever going overboard. He carries the film on his shoulders along with the audience, and with each passing frame you feel for Mahendra, despite what he did. You see his reality and live his pain. You are no longer an outsider passing moral judgment on the supposed indecency of the action that happened in the first frame – a young child of about 12 being sent away willingly by his own father to work in a factory. You are in Mahendra’s world now, and in this world, the lines of moral judgment are blurred.
Tailang is ably supported by Tannishtha Chatterjee (of Brick Lane fame), who plays Saini’s wife and Siddharth’s mother. Chatterjee’s portrayal of a mother – living in perpetual limbo, partly in hope and partly in resignation – but never being in a position fully experience both emotions, is very poignant. The child actress Khushi Mathur who plays Pinky, Siddharth’s little sister lights up every frame she is in. While the Saini family is the heart and soul of the film, they are ably supported by an assortment of characters, intersecting with a variety of social strata of Indian society. Siddharth is not a film, it is an experience. It stays with you long after you leave the cinema. It’s getting an Australian wide release in November. Be sure to catch it, for you may think you’ve seen India on screen before, but I assure you, not like this.