Most films shot in India either portray India through the eyes of Western tourists or the Indian upper class. But India, like Italy, has a strong neorealist film tradition. Think the great director, Satyajit Ray's classic films of the 1950's, such as his Apu trilogy, the first of which was his very famous Pather Panchali. Now, a young Canadian director of Indian parents, Richie Mehta, has just completed a small, intimate but very accomplished film in this same tradition, Siddharth. Mehta tells the story of Mahendra, who is a poor chain-wallah. with two children, Siddharth and Pinky, and a loving wife.
His is poor, barely making a living as a repairer of zippers as he walks through neighborhoods calling out his profession. Business is down, so he decides to send his 12 year son, Siddharth, to a distant relative's factory to work temporarily and earn some money for the family.
He is scheduled to return for the Hindu holiday of Diwali. Indian law requires that children that age attend school, but the family needs the money. When Siddharth doesn't return as scheduled, the family begins to worry. Mahendra's wife, Suman, fears that something terrible has happened, and urges her husband to search for their son. They call the factory owner, who claims that Siddharth ran away after working in his factory for only two weeks. Neither parent believes this because their son has always been very responsible, so ultimately Mahendra begins a road trip to distant cities to find his son. And has a series of encounters that show us lower and working class India in a way that I have never seen before on screen. Mehta focuses on the parents who are overwhelmed but determined to find their son. The story is complex, sometimes with flashes of humor, but always with an underlying level of tension because Suman is convinced that her son has been abducted by child kidnappers. There is much more, which I don't want to reveal.
The story flows from encounter to encounter, with people who are trying to be helpful, but also the lowlife, the callous and the mean. A female police officer is critical of the parents yet ultimately helpful. It almost appears that empathy is inversely proportional to economic class. The acting is outstanding throughout, and were this an American film, the actor playing Mahendra would easily have an Academy Award nomination. Even minor characters seems memorable.
Their performances are very natural in a way which suggests non actors, but per interviews with the director, all are professional. The camera work is magnificent, with its insightful and revealing views of lower class Indian culture. The street scenes are colorful and fascinating, and clearly not staged. Everyone is struggling to earn a living, with jobs scarce and most at the mercy of owners or bosses. Scenes are often gorgeous, even when looking at deep poverty. Not to say that the poverty is sanitized but it is vibrant and colorful in a way that only experienced travelers to India can understand. For instance, a scene where a beautifully painted elephant goes by in a small parade is riveting, even if the scene is only 20 seconds of screen time. There are many such memorable scenes that linger in the mind after the film ends. Pacing is excellent and the film seems over in a flash. The music, a fusion of Western and Indian melodies and songs, are particularly beautiful, and perhaps too beautiful for some of the scenes. But enchanting they are.
I loved and was very moved by this powerful film. Clearly Mehta is a director who is destined to make more great films. Siddharth just opened at Opera Plaza, the Rafael (San Rafael), and the Shattuck (Berkeley). Running time: 97 minutes. Don't miss this while it is still on the big screen. With the increasingly rapid turnover of small films, Siddharth is unlikely to be here more than a few weeks. Ciao, Ian
Photos: Siddharth website