When a lowly chain (zipper) repair man (Chain-wala) Mahendra sets out on a journey to look for his 12 year old son who has gone missing, through the maze that is India, this story sets into motion the unravelling of a reality that continues to remain on the fringes of social discourse.
While Canadian filmmaker Ritchie Mehta surely set out to make fiction, he has marvellously crafted a rich and mesmerising tale shot frame by frame in the style of a documentary, which just makes his story even more earthy and grounded.
Mahendra Saini is able to make a few hundred rupees everyday as he takes to the streets of Delhi with his loudspeaker, cajoling people to have their broken chains/zippers repaired. A small tool bag as his only accessory, this man cares for nothing but making a living for his family. The authenticity of the man and his life shines through in his stoic and somewhat honest presence. While he is struggling to make ends meet, he decided to send his young son to another town to work at a factory. We encounter the story when Mahendra, his wife Suman and their daughter Roshni are waiting for the son Siddharth to come home for Diwali. He never arrives and that starts the process of searching for the boy, who is presumed missing/kidnapped/lost.
The story traverses an extremely difficult terrain, cinematically and sociologically. The story is told through the eyes and in the space of semi-urban lower middle-class India. There are really a few handful of frames that take the audience away from the stark realities of Mahendra and his family’s poverty, their life. So while Ritchie Mehta navigates the presentation of poverty, he inserts the sociological discussion around child labour and makes that the vehicle of the film. While poverty and economic struggle remains the backdrop of the narrative, essentially the search for the young boy and the social commentary attached to it, becomes the film.
The most enjoyable part of the film was the fact that Mehta takes a real life encounter and tells it how someone in a small neighborhood in Delhi would narrate their life story. It’s like folklore, the streets, the people, the everyday life of Delhi. Even linguistically Mehta keeps true to its social reality and sticks to ‘only Hindi’ dialogue, making it creatively soulful and truly a story of the grassroots.
Mahendra can’t find his son, as he travels to the small town north of Delhi to visit the factory where his son was working. Nothing is known about his escape, barring that he had no trouble at the factory and didn’t even have the time to get his belongings. With little information to go by, all Mahendra finds is some hearsay about a fictitious place called “Dongri” where kidnapped young kids are taken. He doesn’t know where it is or how to find it. With this little information he travels back to Delhi, quite despondent but resolute that he will find his son.
By some random coincidence, one day when repairing a young woman’s bag he asks her if she knows anything about Dongri (a question he had asked many other people, but to no avail). The woman flips out her smart phone and just like that tells him that this place Dongri is in Mumbai. It is interesting how in this particular scene and many others Mehta places his character in such close proximity to technological tools, simple things like a computer that most of us take for granted. Mahendra is illiterate and thus has little recognition of all these tools and modern day conveniences.
He sets out for Bombay and to look for Siddhartha at Dongri. When he finally gets there, he is only disappointed as he finds nothing. In Mahendra’s struggle to find his son, we see Mehta’s poignant poetry that follows the heartfelt search of a father, who has lost his son because he wronged. It’s like a punishment for forcing his son into child labour. While Mehta tries to cast no moral judgement of Mahendra, I couldn’t but help feel a little reprimand of him as his wife questions him on how a father could send his young son just so he could make a few extra rupees, while the child’s place was in school, playing in the street in front of the house. The only justification being poverty.
The boy is never found and Mahendra must return home after having exhausted all avenues. Its not his resignation to the situation or the fact that he must continue with life just because he has to that leaves you in shock. Its the idea that a young boy can go missing and his father has to confess that not having seen his son for so long and lost in trying to find him, he doesn’t even remember what he looks like. This emotion, this truth rips right through your heart and that’s Siddharth: brilliant social critique through the eyes of an ordinary father.
Image source: rogerbert.com