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A Song Of The Road continued...



      Mahendra, only half conscious of the grave mistake he now begins to suspect he has made, is more or less 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 where humans, especially children, are frequently abducted and sold as commodities by traffickers in the sex trade, organ trade, or used as professional beggars by Fagin-like ringleaders. Unlike the black-and-white depictions of characters in the tourist film Slum Dog Millionaire, however, there is no MTV-like editing to revel in, sentimentalizing, or heroics to help ease the viewer's apprehension—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 admittedly fraught with social relevance. Nor is there a hint of redemption for the choices Mahendra and his wife, Suman—played by a charismatic Tanishtha 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 where each respective female character seeks the assistance of a spiritual medium—not through the suggestion of any naïve belief in the hopelessly 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 Siddharth might have disappeared to, the tone of the film remains restrained, like one of those poignant stories by renowned Bengali author 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.


















Photograph courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Photograph courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

   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)





     Mehta has been accused of “aestheticizing” poverty. But these comments are clearly made by critics who have never experienced a place like India. Nor does the music detract from the tone or pace of the story, as one critic has 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 feeling 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 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 hard-scrabble existence—are surprising and elusive at best.

     Tragedy stubbornly courts Mahendra's family toward the end of the story. As in Pather Panchali, as Bosley Crowther pointed out in a 1958 review in the New York Times: “poverty does not always nullify love.” A concept to consider in the contemporary world where it seems everything and everyone have been reduced to the status of a commodity. However, the film does not preach; in fact, the rupee seems to be a character in its own right.



















     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 making their song offerings in Tagore's poems, or the gitanos—gypsies—who made their way from the north of India to Spain over the centuries, he most likely 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 one's empathy to it—is a duende: that "spirit of evocation" which 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 by James Williamson  All rights reserved

Photograph courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

James Williamson is the editor and a columnist for The Quiet American

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