It’s a genuine shame that Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta’s resplendent Siddharth has taken so long to come back to cinemas. One of the strongest films to debut during TIFF in 2013, Mehta’s almost Jobian tale of poverty giving way to tragedy within an Indian family is more heartwrenching and powerful than dozens of other highly touted Canadian titles from the past couple of years. More so than any other Canadian film currently being touted for a Canadian Screen Award at the moment, this is a must see work and the strongest effort in Mehta’s still young career.
Mahendra (an exceptional Rajesh Tailang) is a relatively uneducated, somewhat naive, and decidedly old school chain-wallah (someone who fixes zippers on the street for money, announcing his presence via a megaphone he carries at all times). He has recently allowed his 12-year old son, Siddharth, to be sold as child labour to help alleviate the hard times his family has found itself in. It’s a suspect deal set up through a man Mahendra hasn’t even met or dealt with personally. When Siddharth doesn’t return on Diwali as he was supposed to, Mahendra begins to suspect the worst, and the previously sheltered man is forced into a wild goose chase across the country to determine if his son is alive, dead, or if he has been – most probably – abducted for some other reason.
Mehta (Amal, I’ll Follow You Down) floats through his own film with a degree of almost documentarian-like authenticity. The style isn’t shaky or gritty, but the remarkable closeness and intimacy that he uses to approach his characters feels almost voyeuristic and sometimes painfully real. Moving back and forth from the people and buildings stacked atop each other in Mahendra’s relatively small community to the enormity of the world this man has sought to avoid in both principle and practice, Mehta (who worked closely with Tailang in the writing process on the crafting of the film’s dialogue and dialect) conveys a sense of all encompassing enormity, and a remarkable amount of sympathy for a man who learns his instincts were wrong far too late to change anything.
Mahendra’s too poor to change anything, and he lives in a community where modern conveniences are so spotty it takes him an incredibly long time to suss out that a location he was given turns out to be a neighbourhood in one of the country’s biggest cities. It’s a frighteningly realistic portrait of a self-made man that created himself without a single convenience in a country that’s still caught between conflicting old and new points of view. Spirituality and the value of learning a trade have triumphed over common sense for Mahendra’s family, and despite a firm sense of setting and place, it feels like a core conflict between ideals and rationality that could take place in many countries around the world.
Not only does the audience know that child labour is inherently wrong, but Mehta never lets his main character off the hook for his actions. He’s berated and sometimes degraded by others for what he’s done. Even sympathetic police officers and a local tough guy with a secret soft spot make him pay some form of emotional penance before moving forward to help or comfort him. There are scant few moments of optimism and progress as Mahendra bounces back and forth between the growing unease of being home without his son or feeling like a stranger in his own country. It’s harrowing and at any point it could devolve into the miserable, but thanks to Mehta’s firm grasp on tone and form and a soulful turn from Tailang that makes Mahendra’s awakening a gradual and life altering one it never devolves into outright melodrama.
It all builds to a sparsely worded climax that allows the actions of the characters to speak louder than their words. It’s a breathtaking, subdued, and deeply moving note to end the film on. It’s a resounding family drama that takes as many risks with its characters as it does with the audience. It has been one of the best Canadian films of the past couple of years, and assuredly the best to be released so far this year.