One of the most powerful emotional punches packed by any TIFF movie this year is carried by Siddharth, a low-budget film shot in Delhi by Toronto director Richie Mehta. The story of a struggling “chain-wallah” (street fixer of zippers) whose son disappears after being sent by his father to a factory to work, it’s a movie that trades in hard truths, narrative simplicity and the sheer human endurance of tragedy.
On the day before he was to fly to attend the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Mehta – a former student of mine at Sheridan College – described the genesis of the film and its execution.
I understand this story is based on a man you actually met.
I was in India doing a film for Disney that ended up getting cancelled. And I couldn’t leave. It was May of 2010 when the volcano had erupted in Iceland and so flights were grounded and I couldn’t get a flight out for five weeks.
So I was just kind of waiting to come home from India and I ended up at one point meeting a rickshaw driver in Delhi. I was on my way somewhere and we had a conversation and he told me what happened to him. I tried to help the guy but it had been way too long. It had been a year since he had lost his son.
And it obviously stuck with you.
Outside of the overt tragedy of the situation, the thing that really messed with me was the fact that he had resigned himself that this was kind of God’s will, and he had to go to work the next day. He wasn’t going to give up, he was still asking, but he was still trying to do what he could in the confines of his job. Asking people for a year who got into his rickshaw for help. It was never that I wanted to make a movie out of this, nothing like that, but months later, as I was prepping another film, this thing, this guy, wasn’t leaving me.
This isn’t the kind of character or situation you see often, if ever, in most movies.
As you probably know, the process of filmmaking can get so hampered with the politics of filmmaking, which really have nothing to do with anything in the world. It’s just stuff you have to drudge through to get a movie made. And I kept thinking of this real person and this real encounter of this real tragedy that I met, and it’s not leaving me, and I feel like I can do something with it and about it, but it’s not like I want to show the dark side of a place like India. It’s not at all about that. I don’t want to show what happens to the kid. I think we’ve seen enough media for viewers to know. What I think is remarkable is that he had the resilience to go back to work. That if something like that happened here, we understand if you take a couple of years on disability. Because you are gone. And this guy doesn’t have the opportunity to do that, and as a result he’s forced to adapt. And that to me is so remarkable because I think that’s something we forget very often. Of how strong we are capable of being.
And based on my experiences in India, I took a gamble insofar as to say I think everyone he asked for help would have tried to help him. And so I wanted to show that. I wanted to show in the real estate of this film that we are surrounded by good people for most of the film in the face of something so tragic.
Tell me a bit about casting and shooting. The film has a completely convincing atmosphere of lived-in reality.
A big part of that had to do with Rajesh Tailang, the lead actor, whom I collaborated very closely with on my first feature Amal. He had written the Hindi portion of the dialogue on that film, the translations, and he had been the lead actor’s dialogue coach in that film. He’s an acting teacher and a linguist, and he does a lot of play translations.
I met him the day I met this rickshaw wallah in Delhi. I told him, ‘You won’t believe what happened.’ And then he told me how he’d met somebody who’d had a similar thing happen, and when I started writing an outline many months later, because I couldn’t just get it out of my system, I called him and I said, ‘Listen, I would love do to this with you.’ And so we worked very closely.
It was his idea to make his character a chain-wallah. He said, ‘You know what, I think we should make him do something that outwardly, somebody from the outside would look at this and snicker the first time you see it.’ His whole M.O. in this project was – this was his quote – ‘We must fight against the stereotypes. That is the call of the time.’
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Siddharth screens Sept. 10 at 5 p.m., Winter Garden Theatre, and Sept. 12 at noon, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 (tiff.net).