Siddharth, Richie Mehta’s recent film set in India, follows an impoverished chain-wallah (zipper repairman) named Mahendra as he deals with the aftermath of his 12-year old son’s abduction. Mahendra has a measure of guilt over the situation because he had sent the boy off to another city to work in a factory. Despite modern child labor laws and access to government-funded schooling, Mahendra continues to operate on an older model of family life: school is fine for a while, but when the child comes of age, he or she needs to begin contributing financially to the family.
However, when the boy doesn’t return home in a month’s time as expected, Mahendra and his family grow worried. They eventually discover that the boy had “run away” some two weeks prior, though they were never notified. With little more information than this, Mahendra begins a search for his son. His impoverished condition means he lacks the resources and the connections to take off work and simply devote himself to the search. In this, Mehta highlights Mahendra’s powerlessness in the face of a largely indifferent society. Stop working and Mahendra will find he and his family without food or a place to stay.
One moment in particular crystalizes the dynamics of power that surge just beneath Siddharth’s surface. At this point, Mahendra only knows that the boy has been taken to a place unfamiliar to him called “Dongri.” So as Mahendra travels through Delhi repairing zippers on bags, pants, and purses, he asks everyone he meets if they know where to find Dongri. No one knows, but Mahendra perseveres in asking.
Finally, Mahendra stops to fix a woman’s purse, and asks her the same question he has been asking for days: Have you heard of a place called Dongri? She answers the same as everyone else. But then she punches the word into her smart phone and a map comes up instantly. This hard working, albeit poor man has little access to the tools most of this film’s western audience take for granted.
Now, possessing a smart phone with internet access won’t make one poor man “powerful.” Nor will it necessarily deliver him his missing son. However, by placing Mahendra in the completely hopeless and helpless situation of having his son abducted, director Mehta offers his western and affluent audience a humanizing connection to the poverty that too often dehumanizes people like Mahendra. This, for me, is the great success of Siddharth. The film challenges dominant western notions of the poor (they’re lazy, stupid, or immoral), and instead draws us into the narrative through a situation that is universal. Any parent—rich or poor—would do anything to find their missing child. And through this, Mehta shows Mahendra as a person with all the dignity of any other human being.