Richie Mehta’s ‘Siddharth’: A Voice for India’s Missing and Exploited Children

By Monica Luhar, The Aerogram — April 13, 2014 

Rajesh Tailang as Mahendra Saini speaks with a child at the Sea Wall in Mumbai in Richie Mehta’sSiddharth (Zeitgeist Films).

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Amal director Richie Mehta made a solid comeback during the screening of his latest film Siddharth, at the 12th annual Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

In 2010, the Canadian filmmaker shared a rickshaw in Delhi with a man who had asked whether he knew of a place called Dongri, a place for abducted children.

During that five-minute conversation, Mehta was shocked to hear that the man had been searching for his son who was presumed to have been abducted and trafficked.

The man had no photographs of the boy, let alone any possible leads or resources that would help him find his son. It had also been about a year since he sent his 12-year-old son away to work.

“Nine months later when I was working on my project, it [the man’s story] just became“What I want to show is people being good to each other, when they have no reason to be.” — Richie Mehtacancerous and the conversation wouldn’t leave me, so I went back to my journal and transcript I had written. I wanted to gleam out the humanity in the situation; the hope and optimism,” said Mehta.

Mehta kept detailed journals of his travels and looked back at some of the notes and transcripts he had produced to create the framework for a film based on the man’s story.

Siddharth focuses on the story of a “chain-wallah” named Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang) who makes a living fixing chains on bags and other articles of clothing. He ends up sending his 12-year-old son Siddharth to work at a factory to help the family out.

Rajesh Tailang as Mahendra Saini in front of the train station in SIDDHARTH. A film by Richie Mehta. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Mahendra allows himself to naively believe that Siddharth will complete his tasks at work and return home unharmed despite the fact that he doesn’t have the phone number of the employer.

But when Siddharth does not come home in time for Diwali as promised, Mahendra and Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee, Monsoon Shootout) begin to worry that something else might have happened to him.

The father reaches out to police and is asked to identify his son. But with little information and no available photographs of his son, the situation looks bleak.

“It’s staggering to know that you don’t know how to describe your kid properly. If you don’t take a photograph of the person and don’t see the person after a year, are you going to be able to describe them? I can’t comprehend the idea so I tried to make us relate to that,” Mehta told The Aerogram.

The police officer lays out the truth to Mahendra by pointing out that his child may be one of dozens of other children who often become targets of child abductions and forced child labor. But Mahendra does everything in his power to avoid letting the authorities make the final say.

Mehta intentionally avoids characterizing Siddharth, perhaps as a way to paint a larger picture of the many children who have been missing, forgotten or lost. The anonymity helps the audience relate to Mahendra and sympathize with him in his search, despite his naïve and nonchalant decision to send his son away to work.

Throughout the film, the audience doesn’t have a clear sense of who Siddharth is and what he looks like — other than the initial phone conversation with his parents and younger sister. The audience is forced to have faith in the father — the only source of information. But that soon becomes blurred.

“We’re going off on information he’s giving us, which is very limited,” Mehta told The Aerogram.

Seeking to change the predicament, the father embarks on a journey to nearby villages and South Mumbai to reach out to NGOs and centers housing missing children.

He attempts to go from village to village with a sense of optimism and hope that he will find his son. Throughout the film, protagonist Mahendra suppresses his emotions in order to be strong for his wife and daughter.

Tannishtha Chatterjee as Suman Saini in SIDDHARTH. A film by Richie Mehta. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Tailang delivers an impeccable acting performance that allows the audience to immerse themselves in the quest to find Siddharth. His acting is complemented by wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) who was probably the best casting choice for the film. Her versatility is what drives the narrative forward and helps the audience immediately connect and admire her personality and strength.

The film’s slow progression and colorful scenes build up the suspense. It’s the right amount of suspense that makes for a beautiful story with casual bouts of humorous moments to balance out the harsh realities.

Communication through cell phones is also a vital part of the film. There’s a scene that shows the family’s dependency on the cell phone — the only source of communication with Siddharth during the beginning scenes. But that is quickly taken away after the family is unable to trace or receive another call from their son.

The cell phone soon becomes an integral part of the search for Siddharth especially when Suman desperately reaches out to a special missing child help line.

Khushi Mathur as Pinky, the sister of Siddharth, in SIDDHARTH. A film by Richie Mehta. A Zeitgeist Films release.

In a more lighthearted and playful scene, the parents ask that the younger sister — glued to the gadget in front of her — should stop playing with the cell phone as she anxiously waits for her brother’s call. Other scenes provide a sense of relief and comfort as a group of Siddharth’s friends play a game of cricket just a few steps away from Siddharth’s house — despite Mahendra’s incessant bickering.

But while the power of cell phones plays an important part in the story, Mehta also zeroes in on the power of the written word as the mother and daughter attempt to write letters to political leaders and the community, in the hopes that they will respond.

Currently, approximately 60,000 children in India are reported missing every year, and about 22,000 are never found. Children in India are often forced into working unfair and illegal full-time working conditions. Many of them work in agriculture, manufacturing and hotel and food service industries and domestic service.

The film successfully sheds light on this issue while providing a platform and a voice for not only Siddharth — but for the stories of thousands of children who have been lost, forgotten, neglected and exploited by the illegal practice of child labor.

Siddharth has won several awards for Best Film at the South Asian International Film Festival. It’s also an official selection for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. In 2013, the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, among others.

Monica Luhar is a freelance journalist, web producer and social media editor in Los Angeles. She can be reached at @monicaluhar.

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