Film review: SIDDHARTH, from Built For Speed

Siddharth is a visually remarkable but depressing Indian drama that examines issues of identity self-worth, masculinity and family breakdown in a country undergoing tumultuous change.

The film centres on Delhi father and zip repairer or ‘chain walla’ Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) who lives on the edge of poverty with his wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), his son Siddharth or siddhu as he is sometimes known (Irfan Khan) and precocious daughter Pinky (Khushi Mathur).  Desperate for additional money Mahendra has reluctantly sent Siddharth to work in a factory in the distant Punjab region.  When Siddharth fails to return home during the Diwali festival, Mahendra embarks on a desperate search for him.  Confronted with cynical intransigent police, struggling child services and manipulative sleaze balls on the streets, Mahendra endures a saddening and often humiliating odyssey.

The film is largely a parable of modern India where family and community are fragmenting as a vast economic gulf widens between the new westernised rich and the teaming masses of the poor and working class. Symbolic of this change is the way Mahendra is flummoxed by new technology such as mobile phones which flood the ancient streets; he has to ask his five-year-old daughter how to use the phone.  This is a sobering but unsensational almost ethnographic look at a fascinating but struggling part of the world.

Shot in a low-key cinema verity style, the film superbly captures the chaos, confusion, disturbing poverty and vibrant colour of the Indian city streets.  Admittedly, the restrained and unadorned style at times feels a little too detached and emotionally flat so that Mahendra’s plight doesn’t quite generate the powerful angst we might expect from someone in that situation.

Writer/ Director Richie Metha, an Indian who was born in Canada, apparently based the story on actual events gleaned from a Delhi cab driver.  Mehta clearly has a feel for the rhythms of street life and the economic plight of so many in contemporary India and he infuses this humanist drama with a potent realism.  Apart from a few comic interludes involving quirky street characters nothing in this film feels false. This film evokes memories of classic Indian films in what was called the Parallel Cinema movement, a kind of raw and confronting alternative to Bollywood’s extravagant musical melodramas and which itself was influenced by Italian neo-realist cinema.

Rajesh Tailing leads a wonderful cast who thoroughly immerse themselves in their roles.  Tailang’s Mahendra is no hero he’s even chastised for allowing his young child to work in a factory but he is still a sympathetic figure.  As his wife Suman, Tannishtha Chatterjee has an impressively convincing no-nonsense manner.

Siddharth stalls in a few places but is for the most part a moving and confronting example of modern Indian cinema.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Richie Mehta.

Release date: 9th Oct 2014

Running time:  96 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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