Featuring: Rajesh Tailang
Director: Richie Mehta
Screenwriter: Richie Mehta
Movie website: www.pinnaclefilms.com.au/Product/Details/ffd67eac-0745-4a67-96a9-a2b9010aa420
Australian release date: Thursday, 9 October 2014
Verdict: A beautifully filmed and performed realist piece that lacks emotional clout, but rings true and has its heart in the right place.
Human trafficking is a global scourge of massive proportions, the ridiculously media-hyped and shamefully politically exploited boat refugee “problem” in Australia representing only a tiny proportion of its mostly poor, dispossessed and hidden victims, many of whom are mere children sold into slavery or the sex industry. This earnest and well-crafted film, set in India, personalises the suffering inflicted on the innocent by this grotesque criminal trade, not through the victim but via his family.
Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) is a lowly Delhi “chain-wallah”, struggling to support his family repairing zippers. Funds are so tight that he has resorted to sending his 12 year old son Siddharth to work illegally in a factory in Punjab. When the much-missed boy phones with the news that he is coming home to celebrate Diwali, his little sister and mother cannot contain their excitement. However, he fails to arrive. As days pass without news and his family’s sense of grim foreboding mounts, Mahendra works himself to exhaustion and borrows money to finance his way to Punjab. His journey is fruitless, and on his return he sinks further in debt, determining to follow up the doubtful rumour that all lost children end up in “Dongri”, which is somewhere in Mumbai. This vague destination begins to assume mythic status, glowing with hope and promise where otherwise there is none.
The pacing of the film is slow, reflecting the family’s nightmare of flailing around uselessly as hope fades. Relatives make baselessly optimistic declarations that Siddhartha will turn up. Mahendra’s enquiries around the local streets are met with indifference, and as a poor man, he comes up against disdain and derision. He goes to the police, who point out wearily that kids go missing all over India every day, and perfunctorily take his details – but since he doesn’t even have a photo of his son, they have nothing to go on and can only issue him with glib half-assed assurances that they will do what they can.
The film has curiously little emotional clout given its lead character’s circumstances. Writer/director Richie Mehta is clearly powered by a social conscience and is striving, admirably, to highlight the plight of India’s poor, relegated by the caste system and the seemingly all-pervasive indifference of the more fortunate to a demeaning life of abject poverty and powerlessness from which there is little chance of escape. However, while sympathy for Mahandra is inevitable, it is morally obligatory in nature, rather than the kick-in-the-guts it should be. This is partly due to the faintly niggling sense of didacticism that imbues the work, and partly, perhaps, because Mahandra is partly culpable for the fate that has befallen his son.
Nevertheless, Siddharth is a beautifully filmed and performed realist piece that rings true, and has its heart in the right place. What it lacks in emotional oomph, it makes up for in its power to haunt. Chances are, days later viewers will still be reflecting on the injustice, indignity and suffering that is the lot of the impoverished as depicted in the film. That may just have been Mehta’s primary intention.
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