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A Song Of The Road

James Williamson

From November 2014... I walked into one of the Landmark Theatres' cinemas the other night to see a movie that had come out last year, one that I had missed and, up until two minutes before the film began, was sure that I would be watching alone. I was wrong. At the last minute two couples came in, as did two lone viewers.


Landmark's theaters are always pleasant. There are 50 of them spread across the country, 229 screens showing “adult-oriented” independent, foreign and, yes, even the occasional “smart” Hollywood film, including animated and 3D. Many of their theaters are housed in historically renovated buildings. However, I attended their contemporary Boston Kendall Square Cinema to watch Siddharth, about which I had heard a great deal, and had even read some reviews. I also knew that it had won some awards abroad. As the official choice of Human Rights Watch, it won best film at the Beijing International Film Festival as well as the South Asian International Film Festival, not to mention the Audience Choice award at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. These festivals' accolades only begin to hint at the movie's universal relevance and power.





There's a famous quote by Truffaut, who said, shortly before going to watch Satyajit Ray's 1955 classic, Pather Panchali: “I don't want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.” Not surprising for a director whose ouevre consisted largely of petit bourgeois characters and settings.


Of course, Ray went on to make his mark as one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema (some argue the greatest), and Pather Panchali is almost universally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. It is into this arena that the director of Siddharth, Richie Mehta, a young Canadian, with only a few directorial credits under his belt, has arrived triumphant.






Photograph courtesy of Zeitgeist Films



Most readers know of the famous 1922 story, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, who, it seems at least in part, borrowed his character from the Indian legend about a wandering ascetic that dates back to somewhere between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. The novel was first published in the U.S. in 1951 and, understandably, became a favorite among the counterculture in the sixties. One can imagine the novel being stuffed into the backpack of many a drifting youth on their way to the hippy destination of Goa, when the world was a freer place in which to wander, before the paranoia of the “war on terror” seized up borders as well as people's imaginations.


However, this film is no dreamer's escape. It is solidly anchored in the tradition of those Italian neorealist films of the forties, such as De Sica's 1948 masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves, with all its grit, humanity, cruelty, and pathos, and like De Sica’s film, it does not give into making easy social claims or drawing conclusions. The story is too up-close-and-personal for such a reduction, despite its subject matter, and thrives on human-scale intimacy.



Siddharth begins with a chain-wallah on the streets of New Delhi named Mahendra—a zipper repairman played by Rajesh Tailang—who makes his daily rounds with a bullhorn strapped to his shoulder. As he makes his way through the poor neighborhoods that provide so much of the film's character, there is nothing contrived about the settings or extras. In fact, the first third of the film has a distinctly documentary-like feel; and despite the harshness of daily existence in New Delhi—among the seas of people and auto-rickshaws—its surroundings are full of the colors, scents, movements and gestures that make up a world which is perhaps too difficult for westerners to fully anticipate. It is into this vast expanse of seemingly drifting bodies, that Mahendra, a highly imperfect character, sends his only son, Siddharth, off to distant Ludhiana for a month to work in order to help the family make ends meet. When he doesn't return, the story begins.




Mahendra, only half conscious of the grave mistake he now begins to suspect he has made, is forced to unmoor himself from his traditional notions of work, family, survival and purpose, by going on a search for his son in a world in which children are frequently abducted and sold as commodities by traffickers in the sex trade, organ trade, or used as professional beggars by Fagin-like ring-leaders. Unlike the black-and-white depictions of characters in the tourist film Slumdog Millionaire, however, there is no MTV-like editing to revel in, sentimentalizing, or heroics to help ease the viewer's apprehensions—or, for that matter, the characters' fates.


There is no agenda, no reassurance, nor is there any political or social myth at work which might signal an emotional or economic boon as a reward for a lesson learned. This story is too true-to-life and personal—though obviously fraught with abstract social relevance. Nor is there a hint of redemption for the choices Mahendra and his wife, Suman—played by a charismatic Tannishtha Chatterjee—have made. Chatterjee, like Lianella Carell in Bicycle Thieves, grounds the story as well as the other characters with maternal and feminine potency. In both films there is a scene in which each respective female character seeks the assistance of a spiritual medium—not through the suggestion of any naïve belief in the vaguely mystical, but by way of an openness to the inspirations of perceived fate that might offer clues or insights.


Even so, the story continues to remain a sobering one. As each difficulty presents itself, whether it be the result of Mahendra's inability to manage the simple technology of a cell phone or find the location of the place—Dongri—that it has been rumored "Siddhu" might have disappeared to, the tone of the film remains restrained, like one of those poignant stories by Rabindranath Tagore when he was not wearing his heart on his sleeve and embraced a starker, true-to-life realism. In fact, as we watch the story unfold, we are reminded that the most impressive, difficult and rewarding art form results not from creating fantasy, but in accurately depicting reality.


One commentator/critic has accused Mehta of “aestheticizing” poverty. But such a comment can only be made by a western-oriented critic who has never experienced a place like India. (First of all, it would be impossible to "recreate" the backdrops of the cities shown in Mehta's film.) Nor does the music detract from the tone or pace of the story, as another American critic suggested (once it reluctantly and finally does make its entrance)—certainly not any more than do the soaring scores of those neorealist films of the forties, or even Buñuel's 1950 film about forgotten street children in Mexico City, Los olvidados. (Or, for that matter, even in David Riker's 1998 film, La ciudad, which was shot in a neorealist style.) As the story deepens, the documentary feel of the film fades out, and Mehta's lyricism begins to fade in.   


While the music in those lush and heartrending films arguably added a romance and gravitas to their stories, in Siddharth the score arrives each time just in time, if only to reinforce, at least temporarily, a world that is coming apart at the seams. It is as if Mahendra, desperately in need of an invisible structure to sustain him, conjures up its haunting and dissonant strains with every step of his futile search. Ironically, it is not the namesake of the film, but his father whose search forces him to inevitably contemplate the depths of his own existence. ('Siddharth' comes from the Sanskrit, and suggests: one who has found his meaning or achieved his goals.)



Despite its lyricism, there remains barely a hint of audience manipulation, nor is there any trace of sentimentality, as there would be with the same subject matter in a Hollywood (or Bollywood) production. The all-too-human layers that arise from the film's aura—and from what is certainly a hardscrabble existence—are intriguing and elusive at best.


Toward the end of the story, tragedy stubbornly courts Mahendra's family. One is reminded of Victor Hugo‘s line from Les misérables: “People weighed down with troubles do not look back; they know only too well that misfortune stalks them.” However, as Bosley Crowther pointed out in a 1958 review of Pather Panchali in The New York Times: “poverty does not always nullify love,” an understatement to consider in the contemporary world where everything—and everyone—has been reduced to the status of a commodity. However, the film does not preach; in fact, the rupee becomes a character in its own right.







"The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end."


—Tagore (Gitanjali, 1913)




With Siddharth, Richie Mehta has found a way to honor the spirit of Ray. (Not so incidentally, "Pather Panchali" translates into “song of the little road.”)  


Mahendra's road is long. Like the aching hearts and voices of those wanderers who make their song offerings in Tagore's poems, or those gitanos—gypsies—who have made their way from the north of India to Spain over the centuries, he carries a mournful "song" in his heart he might one day sing, but for now cannot.


Still, what we can feel, and what is present—if one dares surrender to it—is a duende: that "spirit of evocation" which the Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca wrote about. (There certainly must be a Hindi equivalent.)


Brook Zern, the flamenco aficionado, wrote that Duende "dilates the mind's eye so that the intensity becomes almost unendurable... a quality of first-timeness, of reality so heightened and exaggerated that it becomes unreal.”


Such is the reality of Siddharth.             




Article Copyright 2014-2018 by James Williamson  All rights reserved

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