In Richie Mehta’s profoundly engrossing drama Siddharth, a chain-wallah in India sends his young son to work far away on the sub-continent. When the child does not return home, the father sets off on a quest.

Canadian film-maker Richie Mehta’s drama stars Rajesh Tailang and Tannishtha Chatterjee and premiered at Toronto 2013. It opened in New York through Zeitgeist Films and arrives this weekend in Los Angeles and other markets. Fortissimo handles international sales.

Mehta talks to Jeremy Kay about awards, the contrast in East-West outlooks and a fateful rickshaw ride.

Is Siddharth based on a particular case and if so, what were the circumstances?

It’s inspired by the true story of a rickshaw-wallah I met who lost his son. I was in a rickshaw and he told me this whole thing – how he sent his 12-year-old son to a factory job in a different city and never saw him again. He then found out he may have been kidnapped, and taken to a placed called Dongri. He asked me for help trying to find where Dongri was – nobody seemed to know. He had been asking people for a year – anyone he met – if they could help him on this point. He also didn’t have a photograph of his son, nor did he know how to write his son’s name. I did a Google search and found Dongri in five seconds. So many aspects of this situation were unfathomable. I couldn’t help him since it had been too long, his boy was long gone. This was the next best thing I could do.

How severe is child abduction in India? Are reported cases increasing, decreasing or staying about the same? 

My understanding is they are rising in conjunction with the population increase. Put this is this way: I spoke to someone in this ‘industry’ while I was researching. He told me that he wouldn’t do this work if he didn’t make a living (and that it was just temporary for him!) To him it’s a job like any other, and as long as there are too many people in this country, they’re will be people who can make a living off of this. 

Do most of the children stay in the sub-continent or get sent abroad?

It’s a mix, from what I found. Many are sent abroad to the places I mentioned in the film, as well as other places such as mainland Europe. But many are sent to other cities and towns within India. Because there are so many regions in India and they can be rather isolated, either option means the child probably can’t make their way back.

Is Dongri really a place where missing children go?

It’s a neighbourhood where a lot of things happen, criminal and non-criminal. As I showed in the film, it’s just a regular area, with fruit-stands and buses and people going about their daily lives. But behind that facade, a lot of sinister things happen. This can be argued in many areas in major cities in Asia, really. But there is a notoriety with Dongri. And, there are many, many NGO’s there focusing on child-safety, including Salaam Balak Trust, the NGO that Mira Nair began after shooting Salaam Bombay in the same area in 1988. So there’s a reason for that. 

The father Mahendra’s search for Siddharth changes him. Were you also using Mahendra’s story as an allegory for change in India in some way, because you make references to the generation gap with regard to issues like acceptance of technology, attitudes towards child labour and access to education/literacy.

Absolutely. I mean, one of the Sanskrit meanings of the word ‘siddharth’ is the search for absolute truth. That is part of Mahendra’s journey and ultimately I think he begins to understand a bit of the truth of where he sits, economically, in this world. And there’s a tragedy to that, an awakening, and ultimately, a form of acceptance. India is a place where the past exists simultaneously with the present and the future, and it has everything to do with technology and education (and economics). And as people become more technology-savvy, and understand more about the world, there are more and more people who don’t have the opportunity to understand. When the film begins, I’m hoping that if you haven’t been to India, you feel like you’re watching a different planet. But as it proceeds, there are specific entry points for you, through technology. And my hope is that by the end you’re moved by the realisation that this is indeed our world, and you see where you sit on this economic spectrum. 

During his quest Mehandra is told, ‘If you can’t find him [Siddhath] just have another one.’ His own father tells him, ‘Go home, take care of [your wife and daughter]… It’s God’s will.’ These sentiments seem startlingly at odds with what a Westerner might say, but they display an acceptance of fate. The father’s remark in particular seems life-affirming, yet a child abduction story set in the West would be very different. How do you explain the contrast in East-West attitudes?

One of the goals in doing this film was to explore a different way of thinking. Quite simply, Mahendra thinks differently than us Westerners (and he’s not unique in this – hundreds of millions of others in a place like India think as he does). And to really explore that meant comparing his reactions, and [those of] the people around him, against how we would react. The passages you quoted above, and many others (including Mahendra’s very slow reaction to the realisation that his son may be missing) are a part of it. Again, it has to do with generations of living a certain way, getting used to over-population, the caste-system of oppression, lack of regard for individual human life and many more issues that I touch upon in the film. And part of the tragedy is that these people have a kind of coping skill that I find we lack here. This is part of the complexity of this situation; that they can emotionally deal with personal disaster far better than we can, because they’re equipped to from the beginning (even if fatalism is a part of their reasoning in coping). This is a major difference between East-West attitude and I think it’s a form of survival skill for someone like Mahendra. Put it this way: if they didn’t say the things you mentioned above, they’d collapse emotionally from their day-to-day experiences. 

The score has a distinctly Western hue to it and yet there is an Indian sensibility throughout. What informed your choices about the music? 

That was the composer Andrew Lockington’s idea, which I thought was perfect for the film. Because of what I mentioned above, so much of the film can feel foreign in so many ways, alienating audiences outside of India. So we felt that the score would be a way of bridging that gap through the use of strings, a style that audiences are more used to. It was to bring the viewer into this way of thinking, a sort of gentle hand to help, but not guide or overpower. And the Indian sensibility was important to at least place it, to personalise it to the film itself. We wanted the viewer to know that they were in India of course, but that’s also why we start and end the film with that flavour, but minimise its use throughout. 

When and where did you shoot? 

Oct-Nov 2011 for 21 days, in Delhi and Mumbai. I was working concurrently on another film, a sci-fi drama called I’ll Follow You Down, which is why post took so long. 

How did you fund the production?

The production was financed privately and the post-production was financed with grants in Canada. It was an ultra-low budget film and because we were not part of any official co-production (there was no treaty at the time between Canada and India) we had to go through private routes to get the film shot.

How did you choose your leads? Tannishtha Chatterjee has made lots of films (including Brick Lane) while Rajesh Tailang is fairly new.

Rajesh and Tannishtha are dear friends of mine. In fact, I was on my way to meet Rajesh when I was in this rickshaw and heard the story. He was the first person I told the story to and Tannishtha the second. They were intimately involved from the start in shaping their characters, as I ran each draft by them. And with Rajesh, he actually translated the film as well, writing the Hindi dialogue from my English screenplay, and bringing a lot of the wit and attitude to it. He wanted very much to work against the stereotypes, so for example it was his idea to make Roshni, the police officer, a woman. 

How has the movie been received around India?

We’ve had several festival screenings, and all have gone well. People seem to be impressed at how we depicted India and Indians. Of course, it helps that I spend so much time there and speak Hindi, so it’s not entirely an outsider’s perspective. But ultimately, I wanted to show Indians in a very positive light, while illustrating certain aspects of the tragedy of this situation. And I believe they’ve picked up on this. 

What are you enjoying most about the film’s festival exposure and awards success?

The fact that it’s landing on all fronts. That all of the macro and micro points I’m trying to make seem to be connecting with audiences. It’s the primary reason I made this film: to transfer the plethora of emotions I felt in meeting this man to others and make them see and feel what I felt (and hopefully run with those feelings in their own lives). There’s no end to the satisfaction I get when I see this, and it helps me a great deal in formulating my next steps. 

What’s next?

The film I mentioned above, I’ll Follow You Down, just released in Canada and the US (you can find it on iTunes now!) It’s another passion project and stars Gillian Anderson, Haley Joel Osment, and Rufus Sewell. I’m also writing several scripts. Two are based in Delhi, and continue the line of thinking I’ve begun to peruse in Siddharth. And the third takes place in China, based on an extraordinary experience I had in Beijing earlier this year. I’m also attached to a few projects that may come together later this year. Whichever is ready to go first I’ll run with.