A film doesn't exist that's large enough to take in all of India, but Richie Mehta, director, writer and location manager for Siddharth, got a good portion of it. His nigh-completely melodrama-free quest film is in the neo-realist trad taken from Italian models like The Bicycle Thief.
The story tells of an unimaginable tragedy, yet it's not an ordinary expose of a dysfunctional society. You can focus on the individual reactions and take in a sense of hope and endurance.
Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang—who exemplifies what Gene Hackman called the uncommonness of a common man) seeks his vanished 12-year-old son. That's the foreground. In the background, Mehta seems to express here what you hear some Indians say about their homeland: that there is a serene pattern underneath all the strife and chaos—a serenity never to be mistaken for complacency.
One scene that sticks: Mahendra is on a bus far from his home from Delhi. Traffic has stopped, everyone gets out of their cars and mills about on the road, a small fiesta. Mahendra walks out to the railroad crossing to get a better look at the train that's speeding in. Tailang expresses the combination of feelings—the frustration for his plight, the dismay of seeing a faster world than he'll ever experience and, underneath it, he registers the stirring of adventure during the course of a life previously limited to strict survival.
Mahendra lives in Dehli's Kailash Colony, making less than $5 a day, living with his wife and children in a furnitureless cubbyhole. A large earthenware jar serves for plumbing. Like the deliverymen in the background of The Lunchbox, he has a very specific job. Mahendra is a tinker in the field of fixing zippers, plying his trade on the street with a small public address system he carries. As his daughter is growing, in need of a dowry, his son Siddharth (Siddu for short) goes to Ludhiana city some 200 miles away for temporary work. The boy (Irfan Khan) plans to return when the Diwali festival starts. He doesn't. When phoned (at great expense), the factory's boss—a friend of a cousin—says Siddu left weeks ago.
There's little trace of the lost son. One gossipy chai vendor passes on that he's heard Victor Hugo novel-worthy fates await kidnapped children. Eventually Mahendra learns of a place called Dongri where lost boys gather. His only problem is that he can't find it.
Siddharth differs from melodrama in that Mahendra has some recourse: a police officer, if not encouraging, is compassionate enough, reminding him that child labor is a poor substitute for public schools. There are a few institutions looking out for runaways, including a national telephone hot line—all of this is Siddharth's public service-message side. As a stranger, Mahendra is treated with perhaps more respect than a wanderer would get here. A taxi driver blesses him, calling him "brother." The street kids he meets call him, respectfully, "Uncle-ji."
There are humiliations, but they serve as the film's surprises—a mean practical joke played by the boss of a prime street vending area outside the train station. (This extortionist turns gold-hearted later, though this could be a ploy to get Mahendra into debt.) And the factory owner, fattened with child labor, might be in on the disappearance: he tells Mahendra nastily to go home and go make a new son.
If this is the stuff of elemental tragedy, it's played with restraint by Tannishtha Chatterjee as Suman, the mother of the family: she's as natural and precise as any actor seen in an Indian film. You could argue that the film is heavy with cityscapes—a director showing off his remarkable eye for street scenes, for directing non-professionals, and for capturing the alienation of Mumbai's new towers hovering above the haze. But India is the far side of the world, and it's also what our future will be like, and I personally couldn't get enough. Mehta's calm control and expert eye make this a highlight of the summer's movies.
96 MIN.; NR