A father’s slow-dawning despair over his helplessness in the wake of his son’s disappearance is movingly handled in Richie Mehta’s engrossing, multi-layered “Siddharth.” As with his debut, “Amal,” the Canadian-born Mehta proves that diasporan directors can make profound films about the subcontinent without too much pandering to Western tastes, playing with Indian tropes while incorporating indie aesthetics. Toning down the sweepy-weepy orchestrations would do more justice to the story’s carefully calibrated subtleties, but the manipulative score aside, “Siddharth” is a small gem whose humanity should play nicely on the international arthouse scene, including Stateside.
At the start there’s not much that seems especially distinctive here: A poor family in Delhi send their 12-year-old son, Siddharth (Irfan Khan), to work in a city some 200 miles north of the capital. Dad Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) makes less than $4 a day repairing zippers, which is barely enough to sustain himself, wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), young daughter Pinky (Khushi Mathur) and Siddharth. One month later, when Siddharth should be home for Diwali, Mahendra is told after an anxious few days that his son ran away from his workplace two weeks earlier.
This makes no sense to the family, which reports the disappearance to disapproving police officer Roshni (Geeta Agrawal Sharma); at the station, Mahendra is scolded for contravening child-labor laws, to which he replies, “Why else have a son if not to work him?” The truth is, Mahendra never really had time to contemplate a filial relationship: He’s not sure if Siddharth is 12 or 13, and he has no photo of his son since he’s too poor to own a camera and only Pinky knows how to work the cell phone. The idea of parents not having a picture of their child may be hard to grasp, but it’s completely, tragically believable here, even if audiences don’t know that Mehta was inspired by a man he met going through this very situation.
Generous colleagues lend Mahendra money to travel to the factory his son had worked at before disappearing. There he’s told by Siddharth’s roommate that the boy didn’t run away — his things are still there, and he wasn’t unhappy — but rather must have been abducted (44,000 Indian children are reported missing each year). It’s suggested Siddharth is in Dongri, a nebulous locale where stolen kids are taken, but no one can tell Mahendra anything more.
This is the film’s one weak plot point, since it takes far too many queries to officials and customers before someone with a cell phone simply Googles “Dongri” and tells Mahendra it’s a district in Mumbai. With no idea how else to find his son in a nation where bureaucracy stymies action and a working-class man is ill equipped to work the system, Mahendra loads up on extra jobs to raise the necessary fare to Mumbai, and trains Suman in the family zipper-repair business so she can make a wage while he’s searching.
In typical Indian-film fashion, Mehta incorporates side characters with predictably positive or negative traits, but then keeps surprising by generally making them more than mere one-dimensional bit players with funny lines. Suppositions are turned upside down, and Mahendra and Suman are beautifully developed from their initial coolness into figures of complexity. Mehta captures the noise and dust of the cities without the taint of Western poverty tourism, and he wraps things up on absolutely the right note.
Much of the film’s success lies in the excellent script and the superb performances from Tailang and Chatterjee (“Brick Lane”), who bring dignity to characters unschooled in coping with anything beyond their narrow world. They’re simple-minded in a non-pejorative sense, their utter helplessness in the face of such an impossible situation truly gripping the emotions.
Visuals are firmly in a lightly handheld indie mode, suitably informal without being too loose. The biggest flaw in “Siddharth” is Andrew Lockington’s intrusively overripe score, milking unnecessary emotions from something as insignificant as a mere passing train, when there’s plenty of feeling already onscreen.