It was a chance meeting that set off Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta on a journey to make Siddharth, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this month.
While visiting New Delhi, Mehta encountered a rickshaw driver who was searching for his lost son. The driver was illiterate, couldn't take time off from work because he needed to support the rest of his family, and didn't even have a photograph of his own child. All he could do was drive the rickshaw and ask other people for help. His one clue was that many missing children end up in a place called Dongri. Where that happens to be, however, remained a mystery for the man.
Not having a cell phone of his own, the rickshaw driver provided Mehta with a number for his neighbour, should he have any information. It took Mehta all of five seconds to find the location via a Google search on his iPhone, but when he tried calling, the number was disconnected.
"It was just so messed up that I don't even know how to wrap my head around it," recalls Mehta. "That has haunted me for a long time, for many different reasons."
Film became Mehta's canvas for the story he wanted to tell. Siddharth follows Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), a chain-wallah who fixes zippers on the streets of New Delhi. He sends his son to work in a trolley factory in another province to help support their family, but when he fails to return home, the distraught father begins to search for him, scolded by police and warned that a kidnapped child becomes virtually untraceable after two days.
Mehta was determined not to make a melodramatic story about child trafficking. This was to be a story about a man who is living in a radically different world with very limited access to information, and about how powerless he is within that world.
As technology grows exponentially, it has created a deep divide between the wealthy and the people living below poverty line, argues Mehta. "I think that gulf is much bigger because of access to certain things."
What fascinated Mehta was the idea that those of us living in an industrialized country are like gods, in a sense, given our easy access to information.
"What really bothered me about this whole situation was exactly that access to information and understanding of the world [that we have], and the fact that [the father] didn't even know the right questions to ask people. That's what I wanted to do a story about. Somebody who has limitations that do not apply to you and me, and yet he has to come up with some sort of coping mechanism to deal with it. Which means that he may be more resilient than you and I. Because he has no other choice. Because he starts to recognize that whatever force took his kid, it is a world that he doesn't understand."
Mehta began to sketch out how this father would even begin to find his son in such a world, detail by detail.
At first, reluctant to admit that anything is wrong, the truth eventually dawns on him. Unsure of what to do next, his wife urges him to file a police report. But there’s little the police can do without even so much as a photo of the boy. So he takes matters into his own hands, borrowing money from his friends and traveling to the factory where his son was last they spoke. He questions the owner – who claims that the boy just ran away.
He clings to the only clue he has – that his son might be in Dongri. But he has so much working against him. He is running out of time and money. He can’t afford to take time off work because he needs to support his family. Perhaps more importantly, he lacks the technology to connect him to the information he needs such as where Dongri might be and organizations that help find missing children – information that’s at our fingertips. So he seeks that information within his community, but they are an unreliable resource as they are just as disconnected as he is.
"It is a very different world, with a different etiquette," explains Mehta.
He had tried to capture those differences by paying attention to little details. For example, in those communities, even those who own a cell phone, aren’t constantly plugged in. They top-up the minutes prior to making each call, which makes them inaccessible the rest of the time.
It’s as if they exist in their village only, cut off from the rest of the world – and even the rest of India.
Mehta wanted to really capture the types of personalities that surround Mahendra, often casting actors who were themselves intimately familiar with that community.
Tailang even learned how to fix zippers, spending a few days working alongside local chain-wallahs.
"The idea was that if someone is playing a cop or a fruit stand owner, they know those types people so well that they wouldn't need any research, they know the attitude so well already," explains Mehta, "I didn't have to write it, I knew that they would bring it."
Mehta, who was born in Canada, first visited India as a teenager. "I had such an issue coming to terms with the fact that we were the elites of the world and not knowing that beforehand," he recalls, "Thinking that middle class upbringing is a normal thing and then realizing it's not -- it's not normal at all."
But Mehta insists that it’s not just a matter of putting money into social and civic services, it's actually a way of looking at the world that's very different: "It's a fundamental education, from day one, that changes your outlook on [the world]."
Beyond his connection to the culture and language, what draws Mehta to telling stories about India is that "it feels like it's a different planet from over here."
For him, it is all about fostering a stronger sense of community around the world. "I have access to a culture that which is so far away from here," he admits. Mehta believes that by finding parallels between two very different places like India and Canada, on a basic level, it can foster an understanding about people in general as well as that sense of universal unity.
"[E]ven though at the beginning of the film you start out thinking that you're different, we still arrive at a similar place," a place where we are better able to understand the world that the characters live in and their way of thinking, argues Mehta. "We're on the same wavelength now. To me that's very important."
So far, Mehta says that the response to the film has been around the content, rather than the style of filmmaking: "Which is really great because that is exactly why we made it. I didn't do it to show off, I did it to get something across and pose some ideas and challenge some notions and it seems to be completely landing that way."