Siddharth: Venice Review

Siddharth Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

Siddharth Venice Film Festival Still - H 2013

Earnest indictment of sub-continent child labor packs a surprising third-act punch.

Rajesh Tailang stars in Canadian writer-director Richie Mehta's India-set drama, premiering on the Lido before a North American bow in Toronto.

A neglectful father receives a severe parenting lesson in Richie Mehta's Siddharth, a Hindi-language Canadian production entirely shot and set in India. Warmly received in both Venice and Toronto, this quietly impassioned indictment of child-labor takes its time to get going but then builds steadily to a surprisingly strong finale. Canada has had three consecutive nominees in the Oscars' Foreign Language category and could do much worse on Sept. 24 than select a film whose themes and approach could easily resonate with Academy voters (if so, the sky's the limit). Even without such a boost, however, the picture will be a popular festival pick, slotting into adult-oriented and teen-focused events alike, and would justify limited release in receptive territories.

The Ontario-born Mehta (no relation to his Oscar-nominated compatriot Deepa Mehta) went to his ancestral homeland for his 2007 debut Amal, which was nominated in five major categories at Canada's equivalent of the Oscars, the Genies, and won for Best Original Song. Siddharth is strictly speaking his third directorial outing: family-focused science-fiction-inflected indie I'll Follow You Down, starring Gillian Anderson and Haley Joel Osment, premiered at a Montreal SF festival in late July.

Mainly set in New Delhi, with excursions to the Punjab and Mumbai, Siddharth is the inspired-by-a-true-story tale of a poor urban-dwelling family from the crowded Malviya Nagar area. Main bread-winner is fortyish milquetoast Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), a "chain-wallah" who wanders the city streets mending zippers and similar small metal items. In the opening scenes, Mahendra and his wife Suman (Tannistha Chatterjee) send their cheerful, cricket-loving son Siddharth (Irfan Khan) off for a month's work at a factory some 200 miles away. When he doesn't return on the expected date, it transpires that 'Siddhu' ran away from his employer, a distant relative.

The first tell-tale sign that Mahendra perhaps hasn't been the most attentive parent comes when he's asked to describe Siddhu and replies vaguely that "he's 12 or 13 years old." But whatever his exact age, Siddharth is obviously a minor. And as Mahendra is brusquely informed by a cop, "child labor is against the law ... Child workers are easy targets for abduction."

As he goes in search of his missing kid, a mission hampered by his "stone age" approach to modern technology, Mahendra hears all manner of grim tales about what can happen to unprotected children even in a rapidly developing 21st century India. These journeys take him hundreds of miles from his home and place a huge burden on his meager finances -- he earns 250 rupees a day ($4), from which the family is "lucky to save 25 rupees." Siddharth is always careful to place Mahendra's story against a precise economic background, making him emblematic of the countless individuals struggling in a system they can neither comprehend nor control. And while Mahendra makes for a frustratingly meek and passive protagonist, in some ways the author of his own misfortune, it's impossible not to feel sympathy for his increasingly desperate plight.

Making fine use of evidently real street-locations, with dogs, goats and litter everywhere, the earnestly well-intentioned, pro-education picture is conventionally shot, edited and scored -- indeed, Andrew Lockington's music is generally more intrusion than embellishment. And so the audience confidently expects a standard tearjerking denouement, a third-act reunion along the lines of last year's international smash The Impossible. All credit to Mehta, then, for opting for a rather braver and more realistic route, although not one entirely devoid of optimism. His subtlest touch, meanwhile, concerns the casting. As the end credits reveal, Khan plays not only Siddharth (Sanskrit for 'he who has attained his goals'), but also two of the youths encountered along the way by Mahendra, who at one point confesses that he's starting to forget what his own son looks like.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production company: Poor Man's Productions
Cast: Rajesh Tailang, Tannistha Chatterjee, Anurag Arora, Geeta Agrawal Sharma, Irfan Khan
Director / Screenwriter: Richie Mehta
Producers: David Miller, Richie Mehta, Steven N Bray
Executive producer: Michael Davidson
Director of photography: Bob Gundu
Production designer: Aparna Kapur
Costume designer: Nalini Joshi
Editor: Richie Mehta, Stuart A McIntyre
Music: Andrew Lockington
Sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes