It’s hardly surprising that Richie Mehta finds himself at ease at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). This was where he entered the world of cinema as a teenaged volunteer in 1997. He went through its pitching competition and talent lab, and also assisted Piers Handling, the Festival’s CEO. Fittingly, this was also where his first feature, Amal, debuted in 2007. “I’ve done everything you can possibly do at TIFF,” he said.
This year, six years after his debut film, the 34-year-old director brought his second feature, Siddharth, to the festival, for its North American launch after it premiered at Venice. The film continues taking global steps as it traveled to India for the Mumbai Film Festival in mid-October.
Mehta is a Canadian native, born in northern Toronto, and raised in one of the city’s suburbs, Mississauga. He also attended film school in the Greater Toronto Area. However, when it comes to filmmaking, he has tended to return to his Indian roots.
His debut feature, Amal, was set in Delhi. That movie was based on a story written by his brother Shaun, who had had to muse over whether that setting ought to be the national capital or Bangalore. “He had pretty much chosen that arbitrarily. His story was about an honest rickshawallah and he chose, in his experience, the two cities that had most dishonest rickshawallahs,” Mehta explained.
Delhi became the chosen city for the film starring Rupinder Nagra as the auto driver and Naseeruddin Shah as the millionaire GK Jayaram, searching for an iota of integrity in an ocean of corruption.
As he planned his sophomore feature, Mehta once again found Delhi as his destination. He said during an interview, “As I shot that feature film (Amal), we really got to know the place, know the people, get attached to it. And I kept going back.”
Siddharth, like its predecessor, is named after its protagonist. Starring Rajesh Tailang and Tannishtha Chatterjee, this story of a chainwallah searching for his missing son emerged from a real life encounter. It takes the subject of child labour and delivers a story about empathy and kindness in unlikely quarters. Mehta decided not to go cynical or negative, as he said, “It’s very easy for me to exploit the environment, say ‘Oh my God, look at this, how terrible it is. This is not out world.’ I don’t think that was worth doing. What is difficult is to show the darkness and within that show the dignity emerging.” While Mehta knew Tailang since he cast him in Amal as well, he first encountered Chatterjee at TIFF, as she starred in another festival film, Brick Lane, based on the novel by Monica Ali.
Mehta’s next film, though, may take quite a trip, beyond Delhi, into the realm of time travel as he has completed a sci-fi movie, I’ll Follow You Down. In fact, Mehta said he had been shooting and editing this movie and Siddharth at the same time. It stars Gillian Anderson (FBI agent Dana Scully in The X Files) and Haley Joel Osment (from Manoj Night Shyamalan’s hit The Sixth Sense). Despite the genre, the film, like Mehta’s other projects, is steeped in human drama. In the real world, I’ll Follow You Down brings back Mehta back to Toronto. But as both his films play simultaneously across festivals, they neatly point to the two worlds he is comfortable in — Canada and India.