Siddharth talks about the society’s have-nots, about a guy who repairs zip fasteners, walking from street to street in Delhi with his little loudspeaker which he uses to announce his presence.
One of the common grouses among cinema literate Indians is that the better of the films from the country seldom find screening space at festivals outside. Gone are the days, when the works of masters like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Satyajit Ray among others found acceptance and appreciation at Cannes, Venice, Berlin and elsewhere.
These days, very few Indian movies are selected by festivals in other countries, if at all. What is even sadder is that the wrong kind of Indian cinema gets picked, and it invariably ends up being booed at or ignored.
This year, at the just concluded 70th Venice Film Festival on the sun kissed and wave swept Lido, there was just one Indian feature, Richie Mehta’s Siddharth, apart from Ray’s Kapurush and Mahapurush, two extraordinarily illuminating study of human relationship. Both had been restored digitally and both saw full houses.
At the Siddharth screening one morning at 9, there were not more than 20 people in the auditorium. It is not that critics and others do not patronise the 9am shows; I have been to each one of them, and all of them have been invariably packed. Somehow, the new Indian cinema does not quite get the buzz going. Maybe there is a reason.
Mehta’s second work of fiction, Siddharth, is pretty much like his first, Amal, which talks about a society’s have-not. Amal, about an honest auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi who refuses to inherit Rs 300 million from a rich man, is a romanticised view of an India which men like Mehta living outside the country would like to think exist.
Amal’s plot is certainly farfetched: why would a rich man bequeath all his wealth to an autorickshaw driver whom he meets in a chance encounter. The millionaire has been wandering the streets of India’s capital city looking for an honest man to give all his riches. It is fairy tale that even a six-year old in India today will not buy.
To be fair to Mehta, Siddharth is a few notches better than Amal. But very much like Amal, Siddharth talks about the society’s have-nots. This time it about a guy, Mahendra Saini ( played by Rajesh Tailang), who repairs zip fasteners, walking from street to street in Delhi with his little loudspeaker which he uses to announce his presence.
Falling on bad times, Saini – who lives with his wife, Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), little daughter and son Siddharth (Anurag Arora) – sends the schoolgoing boy to work in a Ludhiana (in northern India) factory hoping to get a few hundred rupees from the job. A month later, Siddharth disappears from the factory, and then begins Saini’s desperate search for his son.
Unfortunately, in Mehta’s India there are only noble people. Each one of them that Saini meets during his long and arduous hunt for the boy is an epitome of goodness, even willing to lend a lot of money. Even the police seem such nice souls in a country where the force is terribly overburdened with VIP duty and horribly understaffed to boot. Often, they have neither the time nor the energy to investigate cases of missing children.
Mehta tries hard to paint a picture of India that no longer exists. I wonder whether it ever existed, not in a long, long time certainly. With literally hundreds of kids vanishing every month, the police have little wherewithal to look for them, and the poorer among the lot have a slim chance of getting attention from the men in uniform.
If Mehta’s core plot is weak, the performances, except Chatterjee’s effort, are passé. And half way through Siddharth’s 96 minutes, things begin to look pretty much the same, and a kind of boredom sets in.
Probably, Mehta needs to take another hard look at India to come up with a work which will appear more real and rooted.
Gautaman Bhaskaran, who covered the Venice Film Festival, is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at [email protected]