Last week at the Palace Norton Street Cinema in Sydney’s Leichhardt, I happened to catch the Indian-Canadian film Siddharth (2013), playing in limited release in Sydney. Directed by Richie Mehta, the film was originally released in 2013 where it screened at the Contemporary World Cinema section of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is set in India and focuses on the disappearance of a young boy. After his son, twelve year-old Siddharth, disappears while working in a distant town, his father Mahendra Saini goes in search of him, worried that his son has been abducted by child-traffickers and forced into the slave trade, if not something worse. While coping with the rising guilt of sending his only son away to work, Mahendra struggles to afford the expenses needed to travel to the different locations where his son might have been taken, and goes on a seemingly endless trail to find his son after picking up one lead after another from strangers and associates, while his wife and daughter wait at home for his return. Running low on money and hope, and without even a picture of his son, Mahendra travels throughout India in a desperate search for his son. It is a simple premise which unfolds in a very complex, densely-populated world.
The film is superbly made and takes a stark, if not unnerving, look at the destitute inhabitants of a country that appears used to corruption and crime. As Mahendra travels throughout India, he encounters resistance, even apathy, from those who have resigned themselves to the brutal realities of everyday life in India, as the slave, sex and organ trades thrive. But the film is most masterful in its depiction – or lack thereof – of the underlying horrors of the black market trades. As Mahendra desperately attempts to unravel what has happened to his son, whether he is alive, dead, a slave, or been taken elsewhere, the mysteries surrounding the location of his son permeate throughout the film with haunting vibrancy. It is left up to the audience to imagine the horrors of the child-trafficking system, and the images we don’t see become more haunting than any depiction on film. The audience shoulders the concerns and burdens of the family throughout the film, while subtle doses of hopelessness and denial resonate amongst an otherwise hopeful audience. Infrequent instances of humour lift an otherwise distressing premise, as a colourful array of characters help pull the film out of what would have been nothing more than a despairing film. It also takes a shrewd look at the uses and benefits of technology; Mahendra does not know how to work a mobile phone, has never taken a picture of his son, and only manages to find a seemingly inexistent city thanks to someone with an iphone. This subtle but important aspect of the film shows how falling behind in a technologically advancing world can have disastrous effects on one’s ability to live and function. But it also highlights the determination of the lead character to find his son in a place as populated as India. Unlike most films, this one stays with you long after you leave the cinema.