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Siddharth | Review

In a Child’s Name: Mehta’s Sophomore Film a Gripping Ordeal

Richie Mehta Siddharth PosterFollowing up on his 2007 debut, Amal, Toronto based filmmaker Richie Mehta returns to Delhi for his sophomore feature, Siddharth, a rather somber affair about one working class family’s tragedy. With narrative and visual strengths that recall the works of Satyajit Ray and Vittorio Di Sicca, Mehta’s film falls short of being a true comparison to scions of neorealism with a gradual dependence on manipulation via an ever encroaching score that hardly seems at home amidst the jarring bustle of urban squalor. Despite a tendency to force the tragic consequences of the situation, some first rate performances tend to override the film’s smaller faults to concoct a gravely serious and affecting film.

As the opening credits roll we overhear a father, Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), bid adieu to his young son, Siddharth, off-screen. Upon returning home to his wife, Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), and younger daughter, we learn that Siddharth has been shipped off to a northern district to work in a trolley factory in order to supplement the family’s income. Suman does not work and the family survives off Mahendra’s work as a chain-wallah. Upon reaching his destination, Siddharth calls to confirm safe passage and the family announces they will next see him at Diwali (Festival of Lights) sometime in the future. Only, come Diwali, Siddharth doesn’t show up and upon investigation, Mahendra is told by his son’s employer that he ran away two weeks ago. All signs indicate that Siddharth was more than likely abducted, and so Mahendra sets out to try and find his son without proper resources or much help from the authorities, who have no qualms reminding Mahendra that it was illegal to send his son off into child labor in the first place.

Apparently Mehta was moved to tell this story after hearing a firsthand account from a rickshaw driver whose son disappeared without a trace. And indeed, a rather banal slice-of-life scenario quickly unfurls as a growing nightmare, exacerbated by the rather limited understanding Mahendra and Suman have of the world around them and its possible resources. Mahendra’s search for information via face to face client interaction is as grating as it is believable, some random client’s smart phone providing information that he’s spent days trying to glean information on. A gruff, if well-intentioned police officer, and extremely limited resources only further sink us into apathetic mire. The naiveté of Mahendra, paired with his lack of attention to detail, is extremely frustrating. Perversely, the search for his son, gone missing after being utilized for monetary means, has a similar feel to something like Bicycle Thieves (1948), though embellishments, particularly the nagging score, tends to detract rather than aid.

Bob Gundu receives his first feature DP credit, and the frayed, handheld quality of the film manages to capture a multitude of shots depicting a functionally dire populace. But what really holds Siddharth together has to be Rajesh Tailang as Mahendra in his film debut—a nuanced performance as a rather clueless father doing the best he can to search for his son. There are several moments of profound bleakness he encounters on his search, first in the factory where he sent his son, run by a cruel man with little regard for the human lives under his control, and once more when Mahendra interviews two children of the streets, who venture that perhaps Siddharth was lucky enough to leave this world behind.

Additionally, Tannishtha Chatterjee (of Brick Lane fame and who was also featured in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina) is of considerable note here, cramped in the confines of her small home, tasking her younger daughter with writing to letters in hopes to spark some interest in her son’s case. Believably told and uncompromising in its worldview, Richie Mehta proves to be a director of growing interest and it will be interesting to see what his English language debut, I’ll Follow You Down also has to offer.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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