WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Siddharth is a film about the value of children.
The director, Richie Mehta, is a Canadian filmmaker. His first film was Amal (2007). In 2013, Siddharth, his second feature, premiered at the Venice Film Festival. On the website for the film, in the director’s notes, Mehta writes:
“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. He believed his son was kidnapped and trafficked. After the initial shock wore off, I asked him for more details—a photograph, the spelling of his son’s name. He couldn’t answer any of them (being illiterate, and having never taken a picture). Since he was obliged to work every day to support his wife and daughter, all he could do was ask others for help. And he’d been doing this for over a year.
“Knowing that this man didn’t have the ability, nor the means, to even properly inquire about his son is an unfathomable tragedy. He barely understood why this kind of thing happens, much less how.
“This film is my attempt to reconcile my extremely layered relationship with this circumstance. It’s a story made up in equal parts by tragedy and optimism, and I hope what we’ve done here transmits even a fraction of the confusion, sorrow, helplessness, and ultimately, hope that I felt in meeting this man.”
This is exactly what takes place in the film. The audience is taken on a 96-minute journey with Mahendra, Siddharth’s father, experiencing every excruciating day that goes by when looking for his son, who he sent to a trolley factory to earn more income. As in the real-life situation, Mahendra does not find his son. Sadly, this is not a rarity and not exclusive to any particular country. According to statistics, in 2009, it was estimated that 1.2 million children were trafficked worldwide for sexual exploitation, including for prostitution or the production of sexually exploitative images.
According to a report by the National Human Rights Commission of India, only 10% of human trafficking in that country is international—almost 90% is interstate. Nearly 40,000 children are abducted every year, of which 11,000 remain untraced.
One of the things that I find most admirable about Siddharth is that it does not force-feed the story to the audience. It does not exploit your emotions by presenting Siddharth in dangerous and hurtful circumstances. Rather, the story is told through the family’s desperate efforts to find Siddharth; and through the heartache of Mahendra’s financial woes, which he must surmount, day after tiresome day, to buy bus fare and investigate any leads he finds in order to make progress in finding his son. This allows the audience to understand the social and economic situation of Siddharth’s family, as well as the pervasive societal attitudes to child abduction: resigned acceptance and nonchalance.
This incited much ire within me and took me back to a comment made by Ms Jearlean McDowell, a teacher at Success Laventille Secondary School in T&T, who helped facilitate the making of Miquel Galofré’s ttff/14 world-premiere documentary Art Connect: “Children are really our future and they are suffering so much trauma. We need to help them and stop all of the trauma.”
According to a 2013 report, T&T has been put on a human-trafficking watchlist by the US State Department. The report listed T&T as “a destination and transit country for adults and children subjected to sex trafficking and adults subjected to forced labour.” Our country is a destination, source and transit country for women and children subjected to trafficking, specifically for forced prostitution, and children and men subjected to forced labour.
While I can commend the cinematography of Siddharth, which shows the captivating and bustling street life of Delhi, or the true grittiness of living under the poverty line in India, it would not capture the heart of the film. The heart of the film lies in the closing scene, where Mahendra has no choice but to continue to work and take care of his wife and daughter and hope that his son will return one day. The heart of the film lies in its reality and true-to-life form.
One audience member commented, “This film was very moving and I leave the theatre thinking about all of the children who have been lost and will never be found.” Clearly, I was not the only one who left the theatre broken-hearted.