Movies and television have turned us into believers of fanciful feats of heroism. We’ve seen so many examples of reality-defying comeuppance that we don’t just accept it when, for example, Liam Neeson hunts down his daughter’s captors in “Taken,” killing and maiming countless villains along the way; we expect it.
It’s far more jarring to witness the reality of such a situation — just what “Siddharth” offers. The film by writer- director Richie Mehta features much less action than quiet desperation, but it works, thanks to brilliant performances by Tannishtha Chatterjee and Rajesh Tailang, who play parents living in Delhi. Mahendra (Tailing) is barely scraping by as a zipper repairman, spending day after day wandering the streets, alerting locals over a megaphone that the “chain-wallah” is at work. It’s not a lucrative business, and Suman (Chatterjee) stays home with their two kids, so to supplement the family’s income, they send their 12-year-old son, Siddharth, to work for a month in a far-flung village.
But on the day Siddarth is supposed to return home, there’s no sign of him. Hollywood conditioning tells us that Mahendra should break out his nunchucks and go find his son, doling out harsh vengeance along the way. But Mehta has no use for fantasy. Instead, Mahendra shifts into neutral for a bit, hoping his son might just magically turn up, while Suman grows increasingly worried. When Mahendra finally seeks help, the police berate him for illegally sending his son away. “You people never learn,” the officer flatly tells him. “Child workers are easy targets for abductions.”
That’s enough to make Mahendra want to rush to Siddharth’s last known address. But he and Suman do the math and realize it would take him 40 days of working to earn enough for the bus ticket.
Watching this family can feel confounding at times. The parents not only send their child away to work, but Mahendra isn’t even sure whether Siddharth is 12 or 13, and neither parent has a photo of him. But director Mehta accomplishes a lot with his establishing shots, showing scenes of poverty and anguish through claustrophobic city streets, lost souls and peeling paint, which seems to be the only notable feature in every home interior. This is such a foreign world that it becomes impossible to question Mahendra’s decisions.
For all the film’s realism, however, its soundtrack tends to be distractingly dramatic. But the story itself never wavers when it comes to portraying the truth. At one point, Mahendra asks some street kids whether they have any intel. One of them responds: “Maybe he got lucky and left this world.”
Of course, we want a happy ending. It feels good to cheer along as an action hero proves he will stop at nothing to protect his family, even if his actions are unbelievable. But “Siddharth” provides something more valuable than a tidy resolution: a glimpse of the complicated nature of life a world away.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Contains brief strong language. In Hindi with subtitles. 97 minutes.