The twelve-year-old title character in “Siddharth” is only on-screen for a couple of seconds at the beginning of the film as his bus pulls away and he waves furiously goodbye to his father, Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang). We barely get a good look at him; much of their dialogue plays out on a black screen before we see their images. Mahendra is sending Siddharth to work at a factory in Ludhiana, which is owned by the distant cousin of his brother-in-law, Ranjit (Anurag Arora): they need the money, so they’re willing to break child labour laws, unaware of just how much they’re risking. When Siddharth doesn’t return home a couple of months later, for Diwali, as planned, they start to worry something has happened.
The panic sets in gradually. They’re concerned that Siddharth isn’t back, but they don’t have the phone number or name of Siddharth’s boss, Om Prakash, so there’s nothing they can do until they contact Ranjit. When they find Ranjit at the local fair, he’s distracted and uninterested – later, I wondered if this was all a big manipulation tactic – but agrees to meet Mahendra the next day to give him the information, when he continues to avoid the issue until it’s forced. When they finally get ahold of Om Prakash, he claims Siddharth ran away two weeks ago, and Ranjit knew about it, before he starts ranting about what an inconvenience this was. It’s all a little fishy: Siddharth’s job only became available because the previous worker disappeared, and why wouldn’t Ranjit tell the family? Mahendra and Suman don’t buy the story either because it would be unlike Siddharth to run away from a job. When they go to the police, they realise they don’t have a single photo of Siddharth to help with the search, nor are they quite sure just how old he is: “twelve or thirteen” is the best Mahendra can come up with. With thousands of children going missing in India every year, it will be a tall order to find their son.
They start to play the blame game. Is it Ranjit’s fault for suggesting Siddharth go work for this man they barely know? Ranjit gets a commission for finding Siddharth. Was Siddharth’s disappearance actually orchestrated by Om Prakash? Illegal child workers, we learn, are easy prey for abductions, where they feed the sex trade and organ trade. It could also explain his unwillingness to help although so, too, could blind self-interest. Or is it Mahendra’s fault for blindly sending his son away? He tells the police offer to whom he reports his missing child, “why would I have a son, if not to work him?” Suman claims she never supported the scheme, but her silence bred consent. Or is it that they were irresponsible parents for not keeping closer tabs on their son during his absence? Or is it a societal problem? The family lives in poverty in a one-room poorly-maintained concrete apartment, scraping by on $4 a day, thanks to Mahendra’s job fixing zippers on the street. Later in the film, when things get increasingly desperate, Suman must go to work for the first time: it’s troubling to think they were willing to take their son out of school to work in a factory before even considering the possibility of his mother getting a job. Everyone’s at fault.
When the police are little help – we’re told that most child abductions are untraceable after 2 days, so after 2 weeks could be impossible – Mahendra sets out on a journey to Ludhiana to talk to the people who worked with Siddharth and to look for some clues. He perseveres for months, but it’s clear he doesn’t really know what he’s doing either: when he hears about a place called “Dongri” where his son’s roommate suspects he’s ended up, he asks hundreds of people in the street about it before anyone thinks to google it. So the search can be slow at times, and we begin to think it’s futile.
Canadian director Richie Mehta is clearly interested in the social systems that would make Siddharth’s disappearance possible: parents too ignorant and desperate to think about the consequences of sending a small child away; the black markets that fuel child abductions; the lack of education that put this family in such poverty with no ability to find their way out of it; and people so ignorant of how the world works that they’re unable to methodically try to track down their son.
Although this is clearly a personal story, shooting on location in Delhi, mostly, Mehta lets details of day-to-day life (and poverty) seep into the frame. Mahendra makes several trips to his local cyber cafe to get his cell phone charged. The streets are littered with trash and dirt, populated with vendors, and it’s not uncommon to find people shoeless and asleep in the middle of town. Every visit to a bureaucratic institution entails a long wait and rarely proves helpful. And for Mahendra to even get the chance to repair zippers in a good location, like at the local train station where lots of potential customers pass through, it’s an exercise in humiliation. When everyone’s desperate and looking out for themselves, it’s easy to slip through the cracks as Siddharth does.
“Siddharth” opens Friday, July 18, at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco