Director: Richie Mehta
Writers: Maureen Dorey and Richie Mehta
“Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
– from “The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats
“In 2010, I met a man on the streets of Delhi, who asked me for help in finding a place called Dongri. I asked him what it was, he told me he thought it was where his lost son was (!) He went on to tell me his story ? that he sent his 12-year-old boy away to work, and never saw him again.”
– Canadian film director Richie Mehta, dirctor of Siddharth
Mahendra supports himself, his wife, and his two children by doing what his forefathers did?fixing zippers on the streets of New Delhi. When he has difficulty making ends meet he sends his twelve-year-old son, Siddharth, to work in a factory in a distant town. The boy soon disappears, and thus begins his father’s desperate search.
Mahendra and his wife have reason for concern. Child trafficking is a profitable business in India, with poor children being the most common targets. The abducted children are sent to work as domestics in the homes of the rich, to labour on sugarcane farms, to have their organs harvested, to beg on the streets, or to work as prostitutes. This is the dark underbelly of India’s recent economic progress.
It’s easy to condemn Mahendra for his decision to send his boy away to work, and other characters in the film often do just that. But Mahendra is a true working-class hero, awe-inspiring in his moral rectitude, dignity, and refusal to lower himself; in his search for his son he rejects the negative forecast of an astrologer and refuses to seek the help of criminal elements. Among the human examples of moral decadence that surround him, he shines like a firefly in a septic tank.
So what are we to think of his decision to send his boy away to work? For men like Mahendra, work is the thing that redeems. Uneducated and cut off from the tools of technology that might help him improve his lot in life or even to find alternatives to his present life, he sees work as the way to freedom and as the surest way to build an honest life. In this he is no different from my grandfather and many of the people from my rural Canadian village, people who didn’t see the point of education because they were so cut off from a world in which education mattered.
I’ve often observed in Indian culture a great apathy, contrasted with a tremendous tenderness. There is (as in the west but not as covert) a tremendous overvaluing of appearances, of worldly success, of physical beauty, and still, sorry to say, of maleness. In this context, a willingness to sacrifice social status in the name of love ain’t fakin’ it? the cost of loving what the society deems of little value is often that great. It’s as if natural human attachments seem all the more intense?even subversive?because the striving for wealth and power has driven them underground. In a review of another Indian film, The World Before Her, I remarked on the loving defiance of Indian fathers who valued their daughters when other men were demanding that their wives abort female foetuses or even divorcing their wives for bearing too many girls.
In Siddharth we see the same contrast: Mahendra’s desperation to find his beloved son while people respond to his questions about his son’s disappearance with the most astonishing remarks, such as, “It’s you who sent him away. If you can’t find him, just have another one.”
A street kid with fearfully dead eyes remarks: “Maybe he got lucky and left this world.”
The film also brings another truth painfully home, and that’s how in impoverished regions of the world advertising is an ugliness that can’t be escaped; every wall promotes fetishes to be grabbed and idols to be worshipped, and desperate little hole-in-the-wall shops are decorated with massive posters of the beautiful life awaiting the affluent consumer.
What enabled the Pied Piper to steal the children of Hamelin? For one thing, the beautiful sound of his flute?in Siddharth, and in the frighteningly real situation it portrays, children are taken not by force but with promises of money, treats, beautiful clothes, and other highly valued commercial goods. Because this is what their society is constantly marketing to them and what they see their parents working so hard for, the children are sitting ducks waiting for a tempter to lead them to their doom.
Siddharth manifests seven of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It gives me tools of kindness, enabling me to respond with compassion and efficacy to the suffering around me.