‘Siddharth’: A Moving and Tangled Search for a Son

Richie Mehta's Siddharth is the story of a father searching for a lost son. Inspired by a story told to Mehta while in New Delhi, the filmmaker went on to adapt his experience into a scripted film that depicts how a developing nation's population is affected by its economic climate. Siddharth will screen at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 21, followed by a discussion with Mehta and lead actress, Tannishtha Chatterjee.

FilmLinc asked the directors included in the upcoming Human Rights Watch Film Festival to give some insight on filmmaking and tackling issue-oriented work prior to the launch of the series on June 13.

Siddharth
Richie Mehta, Canada/India, 2013, 96m

Description: In New Delhi, 12-year-old Siddharth is sent by his father Mahendra to work in a factory in another province to help support their family. Siddharth is supposed to come home in one month for the Diwali festival. When he fails to return or call, his distraught father begins a desperate search to find his missing son. The authorities, who scold an already guilt-ridden man for allowing his son to become a child laborer, believe that Siddharth may have been abducted and trafficked. Filmmaker Richie Mehta deftly brings to life Mahendra’s moving, tangled, and often futile-seeming journey with a touch that transforms it into both a commentary on modern India as well as a moving portrait of one family within that society.

Responses from Mehta:

On an introduction of a story and world:

In 2010, I met a man on the streets of Delhi who asked me to help him find a place called "Dongri." I asked him what it was, and he told me he thought it was where his lost son was. He went on to tell me his story—that he sent his 12-year-old son away to work, and never saw him again. He believed his son was kidnapped and trafficked. After the initial shock wore off, I asked him for more details—a photograph, the spelling of his son's name. He couldn't answer any of them—being illiterate, and having never taken a picture. Since he was obliged to work every day to support his wife and daughter, all he could do was ask others for help. And he'd been doing this for over a year.

Later that night, after a brief Google search, I found out where "Dongri" was—in Mumbai. It took me five seconds to find what had taken that man a year, with still no results. I also found out that after so long, there was virtually no chance to find this boy now. 

Knowing that he didn't have the ability to even properly enquire about his son is an unfathomable tragedy. He barely understood why this kind of thing happens, much less how. And knowing that his son was lost, and that the nature of his limitations—that are nonexistent to people of a different class—sealed this loss, I've been attempting to reconcile my relationship with this equation. 

The protagonist of the film, Mahendra, is a man who lives as simply as we can imagine. Put simply, his economic footprint is nonexistent. 

Once in a while, however, the world—governed by broader economics—requires something from him, and will take it without hesitation. His son is snatched away and integrated into a complex system of human trafficking. This business is simply the by-product of an economy that thrives on survival of the fittest, and this system is ultimately zero-sum. Somebody requires a boy to be trafficked, and therefore someone must lose a boy. In Mahendra's mind, he never took anything from anyone, but once in a while, the world requires the most precious thing he has. The injustice of this inspired the journey of this film.

On engaging an audience:

Film has the ability to penetrate, emotionally, where most other communications medium cannot. Because it uses visual and acoustic stimulus, it can essentially create an "experience" in the viewer's mind, as if they went through something. To me, there is nothing more potent than experiencing something that moves us. Whether it's a personal "real world" incident, or the perception that we just walked in someone else's shoes for 90 minutes. 

With that in mind, if you're able to successfully catch a viewer in this way, and you have an agenda, or a specific cause you'd like to challenge them on, this is the medium for it. I always say that in my work, I'll spend the first 90 percent of the film making you comfortable with the characters and the world, and once I have your trust, I'll spend the last 10 percent taking you to a place you're not comfortable with. It's the only way to plant a seed that, hopefully, will continue to grow after the credits. 

On creating characters and setting:

One major challenge was, at every stage, we felt compelled to fight the stereotypes of the times. A male cop became a female cop, for example. Because it's not untrue. When I first started writing the film I didn't have a profession in mind for Mahendra. I wanted him to be a common laborer on the street. The lead actor, Rajesh Tailang, who wrote all the Hindi dialogue and brought a lot to the attitude, suggested a "chain-wallah," adding that this profession had never been seen cinematically, and as an outsider you would snicker the first time you see it. A man who fixes broken zippers as his entire profession! At first, we might find it amusing. But by the end, it's the thing he clings onto for life. More important than all of this, was to illustrate the India that I've experienced. That is, the kindest, noblest people, all everyday workers. People who have no reason to be nice to each other, but are. To illustrate that, without being saccharine, without overtly saying people are inherently good, and to still keep the tragedy as the thrust of the narrative, was a balancing act, and crucial to the purpose of the project.

The more obvious challenge was shooting in Delhi, on the streets, in the open. Railway stations, marketplaces, anywhere that had thousands of people where we could hide inside. It was important to me that this film come across as an "experience" rather than merely a movie. I wanted audiences to forget that they were watching something we constructed. For that to happen, we couldn't just stand across the street with long lenses and shoot our actors in crowd scenes from a distance. We had to be there with them, as if the entire circus was in our control. Or rather, you as a viewer were standing beside these characters as they drama unfolded. That entailed us using every trick in the filmmaker's book. From digital effects to hidden cameras to running-and-gunning, to disguising our crew as locals. 

On establishing the economic climate in a developing nation for an American audience:

I've been asked before why I didn't put text at the end of the film, detailing where someone can go to donate to the cause of fighting child-trafficking. To me, that's just one issue presented in the film. As I mentioned before, it's one of economics. When I spoke to traffickers while researching this film, they told me plainly that they wouldn't do this work unless it was profitable. So to me, it's a story of a family that slips through the economic cracks of this world. And we—the audience here at HRWFF—are the ones aware of this system. Someone like Mahendra will never understand it. 

With this in mind, I hope that viewers will simply be awakened to this system. That they'll start to understand the relationship we in the developed world have to the developing world. That supply affects demand, and, to put simply, if we have something, it means that someone else does not. I sincerely hope that whatever people want to do in their lives, whether it's selling insurance or shaping economic policy, or fixing cars for that matter, that they find a way to affect positive change around them.  

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