If film is a visual medium, then Richie Mehta’s Siddharth (2013) places as much emphasis on what is seen as not seen. “Siddharth” is a quest; a father’s search for his missing son whom he suspects has been abducted by child-traffickers. Of this twelve year old child who is the catalyst for the film’s central mystery and journey, or one might say obsession, we catch only a glimpse of him as the bus departs and carries him away from his worried father who sees him off to a spell of child labour to ease the family’s financial burdens. “Siddharth” is more of a word than flesh and blood, a name that echoes in the wind and beats in the heart of only those who know him – an invisible and spiritual character who defies the visual nature of film.
If film is a journey or a chapter within the life of its cast of players, we are in need of a guide to steer us through an as of yet unwritten narrative. As an audience we put our faith in a blind guide, although this lends itself to the spiralling discussion of filmic realism versus the imitation or performance of living in the present. The actor’s job is to create a belief in the present moment before time becomes layered, and the story takes on a past and present, which emphasises the future onto which we project our spectatorial hopes and anticipations.
Siddharth’s physical absence pulls into focus his father Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang), drawing our eye to the background of the personal and familial response to the severed connection as opposed to his personal plight. If absence can “make the heart grow fonder,” then his ghostly presence infuses the search with urgency, and the reflection on the familial disconnect a greater resonance.
Mehta asks his lead actor to be a rock upon which he builds his story, and Saini offers a compelling performance that in spite of his desperation never strays too far from a polite etiquette. Mahendra’s face possesses stillness, leaving it to his eyes to paint the broad strokes of emotion that transform the stillness into a canvas of emotion. Saini’s physical performance and Siddharth’s spiritual presence complement one another, creating an emotional bond between spectator and film where one’s heart aches with the uncertainty, and the growing sense of the futility of the search.
Siddharth is an experience cemented by a stillness and economy of words, and just as Siddharth is a spiritual presence so is the gravitas of weighty themes. Siddharth’s parents are of course admonished for choosing child labour over education, but once the point is made it is left for us to reflect upon as we watch the search continue. Often the gravitas of Siddharth is not so much the unspoken but rather the economy of speech that exudes the confidence of its filmmaker, and his satisfaction to introduce themes for contemplation rather than intense debate. It is a decision that infers a trust in both the willingness and intelligence of his audience to grow the seed he has planted through individual contemplation.
As a piece of storytelling it lacks the stylistic flourishes or excitable drama, and so it inevitably reflects a pleasant stroll through a park in a haze of sunshine. Despite its tragic and affecting story of child abduction, however, it is pleasing to the senses and quietly impresses without a reliance on flair.
Despite creating a personal tale of one man’s journey to find his son, Mehta looks beyond Mahendra to the space around him, and the social attitudes of prejudice, disinterest or cruel ignorance. Within the film there is the capacity for people to surprise and yet there is equally a justification for frustration and resentment. But along with the surprise comes the word of warning that we should be less inclined to judge people’s actions, and instead search for the motivation, because the coldness and the cruelty is not all pervading. Beneath lies the warmth of humanity that can be shrouded and hidden from our view, and it is our place to discover this treasure.
Creating melodic silent movies within a movie to touch our sensibilities, Mehta allows us to see the grim reality in which people survive under circumstances that are far from ideal. Siddharth looks to the issue of poverty in India, technology as not a dark shadow but rather a bright light that can serve our need for connection as well as reconnection in moments of plight, and the habitual nature of individual’s such as Mahendra to fall behind.
Siddharth is a narrative of seeming simplicity, capable of being appreciated as a film that tells the story of a father’s search for his missing child. Yet behind this veil of simplicity, it offers a reflection of modern India, and the individual’s need to come to terms with a changing world and the struggle and need to keep up.
The spiritual son who is missing may be a metaphorical symbol echoing a sentiment that Mahendra has lost touch with his society – specifically technology, and the changing attitudes towards education and the government’s support of an educated future. Through this simple story Mehta offers us a fundamental truth that one of the fundamental ontological balances is of connection, the disconnect and reconnection – a world that is as much disconnected as it is connected through our own fault, or even no fault of our own.
Similarly to Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013), Siddharth is grounded with a refreshing sense of reality, that derives not exclusively from the words that open the film, “Based on a true story,” but in the execution and the authentic reality by which Mahendra searches for his son, and the eventual conclusion that has the feel of a real rather than a romantic conclusion. Whilst escapism is a dimension of the film going experience, it is rewarding to encounter films that do not try and create a convenient reality that mirrors our own, but create a harmony between the two, and that is why Blue Ruin and Siddharth would make an intriguing double bill with similarities offset by cultural distinctions.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.