We see the boy for barely a moment before he’s gone. In the hazy sharply-angled sun, maybe rising, maybe setting, we can’t really make out his face at all. Throughout Siddharth, we are repeatedly reminded that the titular child’s family doesn’t even have a single photograph of him; when provided with descriptions, the universal reaction is ‘that describes every 12-year-old boy in India,’ always accompanied by a shrug whose indifference is more painful than any cruelty. Towards the conclusion of the film, when a weeping father confesses he can barely remember what his missing son looks like, it’s all the more poignant because we can’t either.
Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) is a chain-wallah in Delhi – his profession is to wander the streets hoping enough people need zippers and other fasteners repaired in the course of a day to feed his family. His family is his wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), his daughter Pinky (Khushi Mathur) – and of course his son, Siddharth. Mahendra makes 250 rupees a day, before supplies are subtracted; as the only source of income for his family, that’s $4 a day, or just under $1,500 annually if he works every single day. So when his brother-in-law’s cousin needs “small fingers” at his factory in Ludhiana, Punjab, a city of 1.6 million 200 miles away, and is willing to pay 3,000 rupees a month – a 40% increase to the family’s income, along with the decreased cost of food – Mahendra sends his son away.
Yet when Diwali comes, Siddharth doesn’t return as planned. Soon it becomes clear that Siddharth has vanished, and the worst fears of any parent – a child kidnapped, enslaved, forced into horrors unmentionable – become impossible to avoid. Yet Siddharth is not a kidnapping drama – there are no ransoms, no rescues, no daring police maneuvers. Siddharth’s true villain is poverty. It is against the inexorable lack that defines true poverty – lack of money, but also lack of social capital, lack of information, lack of material security – that Mahendra struggles as he does what he can to find his son. The grinding agony of Siddharth is that “what he can” is so painfully little. The numbers recanted above in such detail are as thick and unyielding as the bars of any prison.
Shot in handheld in the dusty, refuse-strewn streets that India’s poor inhabit, Mahendra must fight against not just an always-ticking clock and empty pockets but a stream of indignities large and small. His massive sacrifices are ignored or slighted, his wife burdens him with guilt, police are apathetic, and even the chance to rent the privilege to hawk his services outside Delhi’s central train station requires playing along with an emasculating prank that even the bully later purports to regret.
Yet Siddharth is not a parade of horribles; there is laughter, joy, and humanity throughout Siddharth. What in lesser hands could have been just another Western gawkfest at the distant plight of wretched aliens is instead an immediate and empathetic story. It resolutely refuses to cast judgment on any of the people whose collective indifference, negligence, or myopia enable the monstrous-yet-faceless machine that feeds on vulnerable children. Writer-director Richie Mehta instead plunges us into Mahendra’s world, and instead of holding our hand challenges us to come to grasp with the complex and layered webs of economics, politics, and culture that keep so many mired in urban poverty. A parallel narrative to Mahendra’s quest to reclaim his son is his brother-in-law Ranjit’s (Anurag Arora) struggle to fund his daughter’s wedding. Ranjit is poor but clearly wealthier than Mahendra; yet it is clear the wedding is subjecting him to large and growing financial strain. What do you do when the joyful milestones that make life worth living come at the cost of material security?
Siddharth isn’t quite perfect; most notably, it lags in the middle. But it is anchored by crisp editing and elevated by amazing performances, especially from Tailang and Chatterjee, whose depth, complexity, and humanity are so economically-yet-naturally expressed it should shame every damn Hollywood film confounded by the idea that women are anything but sex objects, infinitely patient helper-bots, or emotionally-unstable flibbertigibbets. Siddharth is rife with moments of beauty and craft, and reaches its crescendo with a phone call that surprises as much through its words as it does through its moving emotional ambiguity. There are no miracles in Siddharth; Siddharth is about how to live life in a world with no miracles. In that, a story so evocative of a particular moment, a particular place, a particular plight, it is still powerfully universal.