The only Indian feature – apart from two of Satyajit Ray’s masterpieces as part of the restored classics – in the ongoing Venice Film Festival is Richie Mehta’s Siddharth. At the movie’s morning screening yesterday, there were not more than 20 people in the auditorium.
It is not that critics and others do not patronise the 9am shows; I have been to each one of them, and all of them have been invariably packed. Somehow, Indian cinema does not quite get the buzz going. Maybe there is a good reason.
Mehta’s second work of fiction, Siddharth, is pretty much like his first, Amal, which talks about a society’s have-not. Amal, about an honest auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi who refuses to inherit Rs. 300 million from a rich man, is a romanticised, rather coloured view of an India which men like Mehta living outside the country would like to think exist.
Amal’s plot is certainly farfetched: why would a rich man bequeath all his wealth to an autorickshaw driver whom he meets in a chance encounter. The millionaire has been wandering the streets of India’s capital city looking for an honest man to give all his riches. It is fairy tale that even a six-year old in India today will not buy.
To be fair to Mehta, Siddharth is a few notches better than Amal. But very much like Amal, Siddharth talks about the society’s have-nots. This time it about a guy, Mahendra Saini (Rajesh Tailang), who repairs zip fasteners, walking from street to street in Delhi with his little loudspeaker which he uses to announce his presence.
Falling on bad times, Saini – who lives with his wife, Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee), little daughter and son Siddharth (Anurag Arora) – sends the schoolgoing boy to work in a Ludhiana factory hoping to get a few hundred rupees from the job. A month later, Siddharth disappears from the factory, and then begins Saini’s desperate search for the boy.
Unfortunately, in Mehta’s India there are only noble people. Each one of them that Saini meets during his long and arduous hunt for the boy is an epitome of goodness, even willing to lend a lot of money. Even the police seem such nice souls in a country where the force is terribly overburdened with VIP duty and horribly understaffed to boot.
Mehta tries hard to paint a picture of India that no longer exists. I wonder whether it ever existed, not in a long, long time certainly. With literally hundreds of children vanishing every month, the police have little wherewithal to look for them, and the poorer among the lot have a slim chance of getting attention from the men in uniform.
If Mehta’s plot is weak, the performances, except that of Chatterjee, are passé. And half way through Siddharth’s 96 minutes, things begin to look pretty much the same, and a kind of boredom sets in.
Probably, Mehta needs to take another hard look at India to come up with a work which will appear more real.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 70th edition of the Venice Film Festival, the world’s oldest.)