Siddharth Dir. Richie Mehta

[Zeitgeist Films; 2014]

Styles: drama, stress, neorealism
Others: The Vanishing, Panic Room, Amal

There are two interesting ways to consider movies that take place in regions that exist outside your own neighborhood and culture: socially and primally. That is, as a critic, there is a certain amount of baggage I’ve got to check at the door when it comes to a film like Siddharth, similar but not the same as a white reviewer covering a hip-hop record; the film could have been made anywhere, but was instead made in India, mostly in Delhi — a place I have never been and in a culture that I’ve never experienced, but one that, notably, a lot of clothing owned by Americans has come from, pumped with tumult and nightmares.

The titular character of Siddharth practically never arrives on screen; we hear his voice early on as it comes in over a cell phone, but then he goes missing. He was sent off by his parents to work in a factory in order to earn extra money. He was 12. “He ran away,” says his boss, but his dad, Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), knows better. The police scold Mahendra: “You all make the mistake and then complain about it.” Child labor is illegal, but Mahendra thought putting his son to work would make ends meet.

Socially, there’s a lot to consider: Mahendra and his family live in a square cement dwelling, urban, with a steel door; kids play outside. There is no furniture. Everything is always loud, alive — there’s chattering and shouting in the background of most every scene. After the police officer berates Mehendra, he says, “Why would I have a son if not to send him to work?” The family doesn’t have any pictures of their children. Regardless, there is an obsession with cell phones; in fact, the movie starts with Mehendra’s brother, Ranjit (Anurag Arora), staring into a phone as Siddharth is dropped off at the bus that will take him to his new job.

“You don’t even carry your phone on you,” says Ranjit. “You’re living in the stone-age.”

“I get by,” says Mehendra.

“Good for you,” Ranjit replies, impressed, as most phone addicts are; very few people like their phones, but instead just find them to be incredible and necessary. This exchange, however, is a less-than-subtle foreshadow for the whole movie, which never takes a definitive side about technology or its role in our relationships and security.

The influence of smartphones on daily life is far more penetrating in other countries, but Siddharth works because of its surroundings; the family dynamic in Delhi, and the way technology seeps into a world where it seems so clearly out of place, works to its advantage. Moreover, while child disappearance plays on our most basic fears — so much so that it almost seems like a gimme, a plot that requires little work from the writer to eke out our empathy — it works so well because child labor exists so rampantly in India, and the dangers therein are more real than in other first-world countries that are more hopelessly addicted to stimulation, connection, and attention.

We evaluate everything primally; from that perspective, Siddharth is slow, frustratingly inconclusive, and lazily preying on my sympathies — and, for the most part, I let it. I wanted to. But socially, it is a window into something I know nothing about: a family that sees its children the way that most farmers see their crops. I didn’t judge them and the movie didn’t, either. They weren’t bad. They just lived differently. Siddharth is not a remarkable movie, but it does demonstrate the incredible and rare power of art to let us see other people as they are, with our own comforts and choices reserved — voyeuristically, and, in that way, completely.

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