Simple but engrossing, Canadian director Richie Mehta's Siddharth is the story of an Indian father searching for his missing son, and offers a window into the lives of India's working poor that goes beyond the familiar issues of food and shelter.
The film focuses on Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) a mild 40ish pedlar known as a "chain-wallah" who walks the streets of New Delhi with a battery-operated loudspeaker, offering his services as a mender of zippers. Mahendra lives in a concrete room off an alley with his wife, Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a doted-on young daughter Pinky (Khushi Mathur) and 12-year-old Siddharth (Irfan Khan), a kid who likes to play cricket on the street with his friends.
When a chance is offered for Siddharth to take a short-term factory job in Ludhiana, about 300 kilometres away, Mahendra is happy to ease the family's financial pressures by sending his boy away. On the night Siddharth arrives by bus to the new town, he calls home and his parents talk to him on their cellphone. Siddharth reports the food is good, his roommates are friendly. The parents, satisfied they've made the right decision, continue with their lives. A month later, when Siddharth fails to return home for the Diwali celebrations, they begin to fret. After a couple of worried days, Mahendra learns over the phone by the factory foreman that Siddharth ran away two weeks earlier.
Alarmed, Mahendra goes to the police, where the impatient police woman scolds him for ignoring child labour laws: "You people never learn." She also introduces the possibility that Siddharth has been a victim of abduction. When she asks for a photograph, Mahendra admits he doesn't have one. His daughter, Pinky, is the only one who knows how to operate the camera on the cellphone.
With no other option, Mahendra decides to travel to the factory where his son worked, friends and neighbours chip in for the bus ticket. Once Mahendra arrives in the factory town, he sleeps overnight on the street. In the morning, he manages to meet one of Siddharth's roommates who tells him that Siddharth was not unhappy, and, in any case, left his belongings in his room, a strong indication that Siddharth did not run away but was taken.
Someone on the street suggests he may have been taken to "Dongri," although it takes a while before Mahendra, who is uneducated, to learn from a wealthy customer, who Googles the name on her phone, that it refers to a neighbourhood in Mumbai. Other people that Mahendra asks for help are matter-of-fact about the likelihood the boy has been abducted. Though the numbers aren't mentioned in the film, an estimated 60,000 Indian children go missing each year, many of them are forced into labour, begging or the sex trade.
Because Mahendra is poor, this parental emergency has to be responded to with a painstaking slowness. Mahendra takes on extra work to raise money for the trip to Mumbai, and trains his wife, Suman, to learn the zipper-repair business while he is away. Eventually, he learns that Dongri isn't just a neighbourhood but the site of a large children's home for rescued child labourers, runaways and juvenile offenders.
Siddharth was inspired by Mehta's meeting with a man in similar circumstances to Mahendra, though the story is less a document of an event than a particular kind of social film. Siddharth is in the neo-realist tradition of films such as Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, with its quest theme, the improvisatory shooting style, and the unromanticized poverty of its urban environments and struggling characters.
Aside from the use of an overemphatic musical score, Mehta (he also made the 2008 drama, Amal) doesn't take any missteps here or offer an easy resolution in presenting a story that is both heartbreaking and commonplace. Performances from both Tailang and Chatterjee (she starred in the 2007 English movie, Brick Lane) are restrained, as fits characters who balance hope with an expectation of disappointment. What's contemporary in this story is how much modern technology has insinuated itself into people's lives. Yet, even with the all-important cellphone in almost every home and an Internet shop on every corner, some people can still become irretrievably lost.