The detective story is a classic staple of contemporary western literature and cinema. The hero, whether an official detective or not, goes in quest of a solution to a mystery — a murder perhaps or a missing object or person.
This is an apt vehicle for a writer to survey many levels of a culture since the hero must encounter and interrogate individuals up and down the social ladder.
As of late, a subgenre of sorts has been evolving. Let’s call it the afflicted detective story, meaning a story that involves a hero/detective so severely handicapped that even launching an investigation is a heroic undertaking.
Such a story arrived a decade ago in Mark Haddon’s astonishing novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” Its hero is a 15-year-old autistic boy who means to get to the bottom of the killing of a neighbor’s dog.
“Siddharth,” a new movie from Canadian director Richie Mehta set entirely in India, finds its afflicted hero in Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang), a “chain wallah,” eking out a living fixing zippers on the bustling streets of New Delhi. His affliction is utter poverty and sheer ignorance.
A cross-country search for his missing son, 12-year-old Siddharth, is hampered by not only his lack of connections and resources, but his inability to cope with even the rudiments of modern life. Yet like the autistic youth, he perseveres because he must.
To ease financial woes, Mahendra foolishly sends his happy, cricket-loving son off to work in a distant factory. When the boy doesn’t return for the Diwali holiday, Mahendra and his much more assertive wife Suman (Tannistha Chatterjee) come to suspect foul play.
This is where the hero’s handicap becomes most prominent: Despite owning a cell phone, he failed to get any phone number where to reach either his son or employer. He has never, repeat never, snapped a picture of his son and can only vaguely describe him to police as 12- or 13-years old.
While aware of child labor laws, he did illegally send his son to work, trusting that a friend’s “distant cousin,” his employer, will ensure his safety. In other words, he lives, as an acquaintance jokes, in the stone age.
Earning a mere 250 rupees a day (about $4.25) from which he’s lucky to save 25, he nevertheless finds means to finance vagabond journeys to Punjab and Mumbai in hopes of tracking down whoever took his son so he may return the boy home unharmed.
Fat chance of finding him. But this story, which Mehta wrote and directed from a true story — a story, for that matter, which happens hourly in India — is about an impossible quest. It is to Mehta’s credit then that he takes a clear-eyed, realistic approach rather than a sugarcoated one.
“Siddharth” is about grinding poverty and overwhelming naivety. Its protagonist is a passive, uncomprehending individual who reminds audiences that despite the “economic miracle” of contemporary India, millions of people live in impossible conditions in that country, whether urban or rural, and have no real way out of their desperate plight.
This is the heart of the matter in Mehta’s tale. The Ontario-born filmmaker has collaborated with a western and Indian crew to film this tale on the crowded, dirty streets of his ancestral home.
So like Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox,” this is a film about India that is geared more for international festivals and audiences than local ones. The production is remarkably good, no easy task when you consider the difficulties of shooting on location there.
Plus Mehta takes care to seek no melodramatic situations or easy villains, unless the villain is the uncaring society in which his hero lives. The portrait is a grim one, Dickensian in fact, but not entirely devoid of hope.
“Siddharth” is a singular achievement and should be seen by those interested in contemporary India and Indian independent cinema.
Opened July 11, 2014 Los Angeles (Zeitgeist Films)
Production company: Poor Man’s Productions
Cast: Rajesh Tailang, Tannistha Chatterjee, Anurag Arora, Geeta Agrawal Sharma, Irfan Khan
Director/screenwriter: Richie Mehta
Producers: David Miller, Richie Mehta, Steven N. Bray
Executive producer: Michael Davidson
Director of photography: Bob Gundu
Production designer: Aparna Kapur
Costume designer: Nalini Joshi
Editor: Richie Mehta, Stuart A McIntyre
Music: Andrew Lockington
No rating, 96 minutes