The movie Siddharth (2013) is now playing in a small number of theatres in Aotearoa. It is directed by the Canadian Richie Mehta and is based on a real life encounter he had while in India, where the movie is set.

The story of Siddharth is the outwardly simple one of a man named Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang). He works as a chain wallah, a mobile freelancer who fixes zips for people on the streets of New Delhi. Financial difficulties mean he feels pressured to dispatch his son, the 12-year-old of the title, to work in a factory in a distant part of the country. A few days later the son cheerfully rings the family’s shared mobile to tell them he is doing well and will return for the Diwali holiday. Days pass, Diwali comes and goes and the boy does not appear. They have lost contact with him and have no explanation as to his whereabouts. Mahendra and his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee) begin to suspect their boy has been abducted, thus begins the main focus of the movie, an epic search to find out what has happened to Siddharth.

One of the things that makes Siddharth a cut above most ‘issue’ movies (from any country) is the complexity of the characterisation. Any story teller worth anything knows that a ‘quest’ movie is not really about geography, it is about an inner journey. Mahendra begins the movie as a slightly unsympathetic person, who has been complacent about his treatment of Siddharth. He packed his son off to a remote area with very little attempt to find out the full details of who he was sending him to or where. When reporting the possible abduction to the police he is vague in describing his son’s appearance and age, he has never even thought to take a photo of his son. This ignorance is due in part to the economically precarious position the family find themselves in. Sentimentality is honourable but at times a luxury that a brutal fight to survive won’t allow. However, the subtlety of the story telling doesn’t permit a simplistic polemical diatribe to emerge . Despite his apparent callousness, Mahendra is goaded by his wife, by guilt and a slowly dawning understanding of the seriousness of the situation, to do more to find the boy.

By the end of the movie Mahendra has invested everything into the search, both in a literal financial sense and emotionally, to the point he is almost driven insane by the sense of loss. These scenes are powerfully acted in an understated way that is totally credible. Mahendra’s journey bares comparison with the Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief (1948) and the works of Satyajit Ray. It also has shades of Franz Kafka in the way seemingly small decisions can have grave consequences and in the manner it asks about the degree of volition an ordinary individual has in a world of bigger, often absurd forces. In that sense, it is a story that is both set in a specific time and place yet has an empathetic universalism to it.

One aspect of the movie that strengthens its sense of realism is its mise-en-scene. Nothing is sanitised about the environment the film is in. Mahendra’s family live in a single room, up a narrow side street with an open drain outside, disused rusting bikes in the alleyway, dirt, loud music and the general cacophony of slum life bellowing around them. The streets are steaming hot, people sweat and work in the open, rubbish collects everywhere, everybody makes use of whatever space they can, sharing it with various animals from goats to cows and elephants. In a way, the cityscapes Mahendra navigates form a noisy character in their own right. The urban jungle has swallowed Siddarth as surely as a wild beast in an actual jungle would do and it hits you viscerally.

The sense of reality the urban landscape and acting bring is reinforced by the directing. This is a very down to earth style of film making with a documentary, cinema verite feel. The camera is unobtrusive. There are middle distance shots of Mahendra in the streets of the various cities he visits. This is combined with over-the-shoulder hand-held shots as he weaves through bustling markets and close ups. There are no showy aerial tracking shots or camera wizardry that distract from the realism of the story.

The only area of the movie that undercuts the lack of sentimentality is the music. At times the music over-emphasizes emotions at points where we would be better left to ourselves.

Siddarth is not a movie that takes easy ways out in storyline, acting or directing. It isn’t pretty at times. However, the issues it lays bare around the realities of family life for the urban poor in much of the world, give it a powerful pull that make it important viewing.