A new film by Indian-Canadian writer-director Richie Mehta tells the simple, wrenching story of a poor New Delhi man's search for his missing son. In Siddharth, which was screened recently at New York's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Mahendra sends his 12-year-old son to work in a factory in a distant city.
When the boy does not return home for a holiday a few weeks later, Mahendra and his wife, Suman, fear he has been kidnapped by traffickers. They have no photographs of their son and can ill afford to search for him. A policewoman rebukes Mahendra for sending Siddharth to work rather than to school, but the father says he had no choice: his family is poor.
Mehta said the idea came to him during a trip to New Delhi, where a rickshaw driver asked him for help: the driver had sent his 12-year-old son to work in a factory in Punjab and never heard from the boy again.
"He sent him away for work, and believes he's been kidnapped and taken to a place called Dongri, and he didn't know where that was, and he couldn't take time off work anymore; he had to come back and support his family," Mehta said.
"All he could do was ask people for help, if anyone else knew [where Dongri was]. He didn't have a photograph of his kid, he didn't know how to spell his son's name, he didn't know what the Internet was."
Mehta did a Google search on his cellphone, and found that Dongri was a neighborhood in Mumbai.
"And he had been looking for one year, for that piece of information," he said.
It was of little use to the rickshaw driver, beyond seeing a place on the map where his son might be. The man's son had disappeared too long ago, and he could not afford to travel to Mumbai.
Mehta's drama was inspired by the man's sad story, but is fictional. In the film, Mahendra, who is played by Indian actor Rajesh Tailang, borrows money for a rail ticket and at last reaches Dongri. He searches for his son in a street children's shelter but to no avail. Two boys living on the street tell him his son could be anywhere - still in India, or taken to Singapore, the Middle East, New York.
"Maybe he got lucky and left this world," one says.
Mehta says that is the story of many children forced into servitude or worse.
"It's a combination of you know, child labor, sex trade, illegal organ trade - within India, and outside countries, too. It's all over, it happens in the United States, too, right? It's everywhere," he said.
Mehta said he worked with his actors, particularly Tailang, to compose their lines in Hindi. Tannishtha Chatterjee plays Siddharth's mother, Suman, whose character, like Mahendra's, is conveyed more by expression than words.
"Words didn't matter. I didn't need to always say things, but I was feeling them, and when you feel it, the camera always sees it," Chatterjee said.
"I think emotions and responses to certain things in life are pretty universal," she said. "I always put myself in that situation, how would I respond if this happened to me, and that's a more genuine way of sort of expressing and feeling the journeys of each character."
Siddharth won top awards at the Beijing International Film Festival, and the South Asian International Film Festival, and will open commercially in theaters in New York and Los Angeles.