In India sometime in the 5th or 6th century BC, tradition has it that a prince kept his son Siddhartha locked up in luxury to spare him the knowledge of suffering and death. When he became a young man, Siddhartha insisted on entering the world, and witnessed the pain of existence. He never returned home, but sought the path of enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Canadian director Richie Mehta’s “Siddharth” (the name is a popular variant of Siddhartha) reverses that scenario. In this wrenching, immersive tale, it’s the father who exposes the son to a perilous world. Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), a “chain-wallah,” or zipper repairman, sends 12-year-old Siddharth (Irfan Khan) away to earn money that will help the family through some hard times. When the boy does not return, Mahendra leaves home to search for him, with increasing desperation.
Unlike a Hollywood version of this story, there are no assurances that things will end happily in Mehta’s film. For the most part, he renounces sentimentality. Though Mehta occasionally succumbs to aestheticizing poverty — there always seems an opportunity to show a gaily painted elephant or idyllic sunset — he does not bowdlerize his subject, manipulate his audience, or try to make things better with an insipid bromide.
For example, Mahendra is not exactly an ideal parent. When the film opens, a cheery Siddharth climbs on a bus and says his farewells — it looks like he’s off for a good time at summer camp. Instead, Mahendra has arranged to get the boy illegal employment (child labor is banned in India) in a factory in Punjab, a remote and dangerous province.
When he reports the disappearance, the officer chides him for his negligent act. “Why have a boy if not to work him?” Mahendra replies in bewilderment. He also is unsure how old his son is, and has no photographs the police can use to identify him.
It begins to dawn on Mahendra that his attitude toward fatherhood might be outdated (a later discussion about his own father suggests that it has been inherited). Goaded by his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee), Mahendra resolves to find his son. He borrows money from friends and travels to the factory, where the owner refuses to cooperate: “You can just have another one,” he tells Mahendra dismissively.
But one of the boys, Siddharth’s former roommate, offers a lead. Mahendra’s son can be found at a place called Dongri, where all lost children end up.
Suspense builds as the film becomes a non-action version of “Taken,” in which Mahendra on his own tries to track down his son before — as the director of a shelter warns him — he falls victim to organ or sex traders. He asks everyone if they have heard about Dongri, a word that begins to take on the fantasy allure of Neverland. He accosts boys on the street who look like his son (they are, in fact, all played by Khan). “I am forgetting what he looks like,” Mahendra finally admits.
Though at times “Siddharth” can resemble a well-photographed report on India’s social and economic ills, Mehta subtly employs different styles to sustain the poetry, poignancy, and drama. They range from cinéma vérité to Bollywood-like montages, and sometimes long, wordless, meditative takes reminiscent of Satyajit Ray.
“Siddharth” also updates Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” except here it’s not a father and son searching for a stolen bicycle, but a father searching for his apparently stolen son. As in “Thieves,” the father’s inexorable humbling brings about both pathos and clarity. Mahendra may not achieve enlightenment, but he learns the value of resignation.