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Delhi to Mumbai: the desperate search for Siddharth

By Beth Jellicoe

A father embarks on an epic journey across India to find his missing son in "Siddharth". Source: Siddharth 2013
A father embarks on an epic journey across India to find his missing son in “Siddharth”. Source: Siddharth 2013

“Siddharth” is based on the true story of a boy who went missing, and it made me angry. Furious, even. This film makes no promises, and gives no easy answers. I don’t need to bang on about my relationship to India or the stories of the gallant and compassionate children I met there, or why that made “Siddharth” a particularly difficult film to watch – because the sad thing is, you can probably guess all that. And the evil trades which are hinted about in this film are active all over the world.

The film starts with Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) putting his 12-year old son Siddharth on a bus. At first we have no idea where Siddharth’s going, or why. We hear that Siddharth will be back by Diwali, but he does not return. Gradually we learn that Mahendra is a chain-wallah (a poor street worker) in bad financial straits. Through connections, he has sent his son away to Ludhiana to work in a factory and support the family. When the family discover that Siddharth disappeared, Mahendra embarks on an agonizing journey to find his boy, who is believed to have been trafficked. One of the hardest moments to watch takes place when a policewoman scolds a guilt-ridden Mahendra: “You people never learn. Child labour is against the law – why didn’t you send him to school?” “Why would I have a son, if not to work him?” Mahendra replies.

Canada-based director Richie Mehta takes us effortlessly into this world and reminds us of its realities throughout – the script (which he co-wrote with Tailang) is naturalistic, minimal, and holds back on too much exposition. Bob Gundu’s cinematography creates a claustrophobic but compelling visual narrative, with tracking shots following Mahendra and his family through their narrow, crowded lives. Andrew Lockington’s accomplished score adds an extra element to a film that sometimes feels as real and naturalistic as a documentary.

Tailang’s performance is superb, showing us an emotionally repressed man who is gradually breaking under agonising pressure. Tannishtha Chatterjee is stunning as Mahendra’s wife Suman, giving a driven, controlled, utterly believable performance: just one expression shows a world of fear and rage. Their pressured marriage and desperation felt so real to me that I forgot they were both in character. Special mention must also go to the child actors, especially Khushi Mathur’s outstanding performance as Siddharth’s young sister Pinky: she makes the role her own. To his credit, Mehta avoids sentimentalising the child characters, and incisively shows India’s systematic failure to protect children – India is home to the largest number of child labourers in the world, and all these children are vulnerable to being trafficked.

The biggest testament to the film came in the audience’s reaction at the end. There was a collective intake of breath. As the credits rolled, nobody moved out of their seats. Couples looked at each other reassuringly. On the way out, I saw a woman carrying her child out of the theatre in her arms.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival plays at the Ritzy Picturehouse until the 28th of March.


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