A well-intentioned story of an impoverished father searching for his missing child is muddled by an ambitious sociological agenda in Richie Mehta’s Siddharth, in which two narratives run unharmoniously parallel to one another. After sending his young son, Siddharth (Irfan Khan), away to work in order to help bring in more income, Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) discovers how foolish his idea was when the boy disappears without a trace and is suspected of being kidnapped. Mahendra, facing the antipathy of his family, scrapes together what little money he has and searches for Siddharth throughout an India suffering from increasingly bleak economic conditions.
Mahendra’s almost countrywide search begins as a modest yet routine endeavor, until Mehta slowly reveals that this story is also somewhat of a character study of a man disconnected from his homeland. The use of cellphones is ubiquitous in India, but Mahendra never seems to get a handle on the technology despite the computer-savviness that most individuals in his community evince. The man’s awakening to his own willful ignorance leads to minor scenes of humor and depth, even as Mehta tests audience sympathy toward the story’s hero: Mahendra’s admirable quality of striving to help his family survive creates a tunnel vision that makes him blind to others’ desires, much like how he carelessly sends Siddarth to work instead of school. This trait becomes something of a karmic undoing throughout Mahendra’s search for his son, as he’s frequently berated for not being as aware as he should be.
Mahendra, as man and father, is an interestingly detailed character, but the parallel storylines of his search for Siddharth and his slow embrace of changing times never effectively reconcile each other into a cohesive whole. This is in part due to the film’s choppy structure and pacing; most of the individual scenes end precisely where they began and stall any forward progress in the story. Whenever Mahendra does make some headway into his journey, even the smallest tips or breadcrumbs of info seemingly arise from a slew of dues ex machina contrivances, such as a scene wherein Mahendra’s brother-in-law is revealed to know more about the dangerous location Siddharth was sent to. Collaging ethnographic footage of downtrodden Indian settings with Mahendra’s journey, the film aims to capture rarely addressed hardships facing India’s people, such as kidnapping and child labor. Yet by the end, it’s hard to discern whether Mehta means to shine a light on the distressing poverty and crime facing India, or if he means to show that Mahendra’s problems can be averted through the acceptance of modern technology.