Film Review: Siddharth

Intermittently moving search for a lost child, but this drama could have used some tightening and more focus.

In New Delhi, Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) ekes out a living for himself and his family as a "chain-wallah," a street-rambling handyman who fixes broken zippers and small articles. Desperate for additional income, Mahendra and his wife Suman (Tannistha Chatterjee) decide to send their son, Siddharth (Irfan Khan), to work for a month at a factory in another town. Siddharth doesn’t return after the 30 days, and Mahendra sets out to find him, a mission which takes him to the Punjab as well as far-off Mumbai. All the while, as he searches desperately, his head is filled with horror stories about Siddharth's possible abduction and being forced into child prostitution, although his employer told him that the boy ran away.

Inspired by a true story, writer-director Richie Mehta paints an affecting portrait of a father who, caught up in the reality of trying to get by on an income of $4 a day, proves to be a less than totally involved parent, much to his regret. The loss of Siddharth hits him hard, abetted by his wife's resentment about their cheerful, happy-go-lucky son's having to go away in the first place.  At one point, it is revealed that Mahendra is even unsure about Siddharth's exact age, and you realize that an obsession with money—whether it's a desperately poor man like Mahendra or a too-busy millionaire—can create an all-too familiar neglectful-daddy situation.

Unfortunately, Mehta does not retain a firm grip on his storyline and the film, perhaps too enraptured by the bustlingly colorful locales of India, which are featured in lengthy, dialogue-less passages, becomes rather meandering. Any sense of urgency is lost, as Mahendra, a timid, passive sort to begin with, wanders about the country, gathering dubious clues to his child's whereabouts. The film is full of piquant encounters with street folk, including a nastily funny moment when a gay man in a dubious position of authority humiliates our protagonist. Mehta also goes in for that old gambit of having Khan play not only Siddharth, but also a couple of kids whom a thoroughly muddled Mahendra mistakes for him. I do applaud the director for avoiding any easy happy ending, though.

A soupy, distracting music score is a liability—lost-child films rarely need music, anyway, to up the emotional ante—but Mehta extracts good performances from his cast. Mahendra's wimpy nature is a challenge for viewer empathy, but Tailang manifests enough Everyman concern and determination, however cowed, to make you care. Chatterjee displays an admirable, no-nonsense strength, and you wish Mehta had featured her more, particularly as women have always been one of the glories of Indian cinema. Khan has a chipper charisma, which the film also could have used more of, before his fateful disappearance.

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