The ‘missing person’ movie has been one of cinema’s most reliable and venerable sub-genres for a long time. From Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) to Terence Fisher’s So Long at the Fair (1950) and on to Costa-Gavra’s Missing (1982), filmmakers have gone to the bank (and sometimes to the Oscars) with mysterious tales of the disappeared or lost.
The tradition continues with Siddharth, a new drama from India opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 18. Directed by Richie Mehta, the film brings the theme to the sub-continent, where a bereft and guilt-ridden father searches desperately for his missing 12-year-old son.
‘Chain wallah’ Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tasilang) earns a meager living on the streets of Delhi repairing zippers, grommets and buckles on broken luggage and clothing. Always looking to improve the family cash flow, Mahendra takes the advice of brother-in-law Ranjit (Anurag Arora) and sends 12-year-old son Siddharth for a few weeks’ work in a trolley factory in Ludhiana, a city over five hours to the north.
Scheduled to return home in time for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights celebrated each autumn, Siddharth has been placed in the care of crusty and uncooperative factory owner Om Prakash (Amitabh Srivasta). When he doesn’t return home on time, however, Mahendra and wife Suman (Brick Lane’s Tannishtha Chatterjee) naturally begin to worry — and as the days pass (and a phone call to Prakash reveals the lad has ‘run away’) worry turns to panic, compelling Mahendra to begin searching for his lost offspring.
The balance of the film follows Dad as he travels across India by bus and train, his search culminating in Mumbai, where rumor tells of a place named Dongri where runaways and lost boys are gathered up and cared for. I won’t spoil the film’s ending by telling you whether or not father and son are happily reunited, but by and large Siddharth rings true, lying firmly in the camp of neo-realistic drama.
That said, Siddharth’s impact is lessened somewhat by the blunt preachiness of Mehta’s screenplay. When Mahendra reports his son’s disappearance to police inspector Roshni Madam (Geeta Agrawal Sharma), he gets a lecture about the illegality of child labor and the importance of education; talk of abductions by sex or organ traffickers is balanced with shout-outs to NGOs and charities. In these respects Siddharth bears a resemblance to the American ‘social problem films’ of the 1940s and ‘50s, where filmmakers focused on a particular social ill to the occasional detriment of fluid storytelling.
Nonetheless, Siddharth is an engaging and emotionally compelling variation on the missing person theme. Attractively lensed in Delhi and Mumbai by cinematographer Bob Gundu – who does a stellar job capturing beauty, poverty and urban grit in equal measure – Mehta’s film resides many miles from both the rustic realism of Satyajit Ray and the magical realism of Raj Kapoor, but will satisfy admirers of both strains of Indian cinema.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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