by GREG KING
“Siddharth is not the type of movie you make for financial reasons,” admits Toronto-based filmmaker Richie Mehta.
Although based in Canada, Mehta is of Indian ancestry – his parents are from India, and he speaks the language – and has travelled back and forth between the two countries to make his movies. He shot his first film Amal, a drama about a rickshaw driver who inherits a fortune from a billionaire, in Delhi. And it was while filming there in 2007 that he found the inspiration for his sophomore feature film, the grim, emotionally wrought tale Siddharth, about a father’s desperate search for his missing son.
As Mehta explains it, while filming in India a few years back he ended up taking a ride with a rickshaw driver who pleaded for his help. He was trying to find his missing son. But when Mehta asked him questions, like: ‘What happened? Where is your son?’ he was shocked to hear the man’s story of how he’d sent his twelve year old son to a different town to work, and he never saw him again. He’d been tracking him since, and he believed he’d been kidnapped. The man didn’t have a photograph of his son to show police, and he didn’t even know how to spell his son’s name.
Mehta recalls thinking: “Oh my God, this man doesn’t even have the means to enquire about his son.” The desperate search had been going on for over a year, and after one year of asking people on the streets he had still not found the vital pieces of information he was looking for.
“So that started this whole journey. If I can’t help this guy maybe I can talk about what this is all about,” explains Mehta. Apparently this story is not unique, as thousands and thousands of children go missing in India every year. Some are taken into trafficking, some into slavery, some into sexual slavery, some are taken for organs, and some are taken for indentured servitude in different countries. “I can’t even tell you how many,” continues the filmmaker. “There’s definitely a value attached to them. I mean we talk about it in the film as well. So it’s a combination of all these kind of things.
“At the same time we don’t show what happened to the boy, we don’t show these issues, we imply them. What we did show was this compassion, people helping this guy, especially the people around him, they’re trying to do their best. The people I’ve met in India are amongst the most wonderful I’ve ever seen, despite these terrible issues. And that’s something I wanted to show.”
Mehta wrote the screenplay with his closest collaborator being the film’s star Rajesh Tailang, a great actor from India and also a very close friend, who translated the film into Hindi. Tailang is a a teacher at the prestigious national school of drama in Delhi, where he teaches diction and dialogue; he’s an expert in the language, and he also does translation for plays. Tailang also did the Hindi translations for Mehta’s first film. He had a small part in Amal, and he also has a part in the upcoming sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
“He and I worked through each line, each piece of dialogue systematically,” explains Mehta. “And he brought a whole lot of attitude. So that became a real collaboration between us. We became very good friends, and he was sort of my first choice to collaborate for this.” He wrote the role of Mahendra – a chain wallah eking out a living on the teeming, crowded streets of New Delhi – specifically for Tailang, implicitly knowing that he would bring a lot of compassion to his performance.
“When I write I don’t put a lot of emotion into the script I write,” he continues. “I just write this is what is happening and this is what is said. Rajesh is the kind of person you can just look at and feel a lot of compassion for, and that just comes from the attitude he has. And he was understated in the role. We had a lot of discussion about tone because he’s playing someone in a class of people that learns to suppress their emotions , especially when they’re around people of the upper classes, because they don’t want to express themselves. So, as a result, he’s keeping everything in.”
Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee (best known for her role in the drama Brick Lane), who plays Mahendra’s long suffering and sympathetic wife, is another friend of Mehta’s, and she was the first person he spoke to about the film. “I told her what I was up to, and right away she was like: ‘I’d love to do this.’ She was my first choice as well, so it became a real collaboration from the beginning. At each stage of the script as I was writing it I would run things by her and she would give me ideas, because she has played a lot of people from that world as well. And so it was a very close collaboration.”
Mehta spent 21 days shooting the film on the streets of Delhi with a small crew of eleven people, taking advantage of the teeming streets to bring a sense of realism to the scenario. Mehta’s method was to rehearse scenes with the actors in private and then go out onto the streets to put his actors into the real environment. “No-one knows we were shooting,” he adds. “The cameras were so small, our presence was undetectable, and so everyone around thinks it’s real. As a result we don’t have to stand 300 feet away, we don’t need long lenses, we can be right there and capture the scene intimately, and still have India support us.”
Mehta worked closely with cinematographer Bob Gundu on creating the documentary like realism of the film. Gundu has collaborated extensively with Mehta on his short film projects and experimental projects, but this was his first feature film. “He’s a kind of one man crew,” elaborates Mehta. “He was the only person in the camera crew. He brought all of his gear, and in a way he approached this like we were shooting a documentary, even though everything was planned. He and I had a close collaboration because oftentimes on the street it would just be me and him and the actors and nobody else. So we had a shorthand. And we shot a lot of footage of the streets, I mean just hours and hours of extra footage of the environment which we were able to integrate in the edit, to make it look like you’re actually watching the story unfold.”
Mehta started editing the film but then he got the financing for another film, a science fiction project called I’ll Follow You Down, so he put Siddharth aside for a period. I’ll Follow You Down was a change of pace for Mehta as it was shot in Canada and is his first feature film shot in the English language. The science fiction film deals with issues of time travel and changing the past, and it stars Haley Joel Osment, Gillian Anderson and Rufus Sewell. For Mehta the opportunity to work with such a fine cast was a dream come true.
“It’s kind of a great antithesis to Siddharth,” he continues, “because everything was completely controlled, fabricated and constructed. You are planning every single frame, every single shot, every moment. For me that was a great exercise and something to learn. I hadn’t done anything like that in a while. And to work with actors like that who had way more experience than I do, I had to step up to the challenge.”
And he was full of praise for Osment, a former child star who came to prominence in the spooky psychological thriller The Sixth Sense, with Bruce Willis and Toni Collette, and had roles in other films like Pay It Forward and A.I. before he temporarily gave the game away to study. Many child stars burn out or find themselves in trouble with drugs and the law, but Osment seems to have largely avoided most of the pitfalls of early stardom.
“He’s probably one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met,” enthuses Mehta. “He’s very well balanced as a person, considering his status and what he’s achieved at such a young age. He went to school after that, he went to NYU for theatre. He was just living and when I met him, and we just got along as people. He talked more about sociology and politics than anything else, and like those other actors he’s a great collaborator all the way. He was ready to try anything, super enthusiastic, I’d never heard him say a negative word about anything or anyone. He was a real pleasure.”
Mehta returned to complete the post production work on Siddharth after he had completed work on I’ll Follow You Down (which is now available on DVD). “I picked Siddharth up again after that hiatus. I think that really helped the film, because it gave me a distance and allowed me to come back and see what was there, and really hone it down to what this is all about.”
And on a positive note Mehta acknowledges that a recent co-production treaty signed between India and Canada is a game changer that will make things easier and more interesting for filmmakers on both sides of the world. Siddharth was not made as a coproduction because there was no treaty then and that made things difficult, forcing Mehta and his crew to be creative. “The treaty definitely paves the way for people like me to continue to do the work I love, and it gives us a chance to make a living out of it. Siddharth is not the type of movie you make for financial reasons. But you want to sustain yourself, and now we have that opportunity.”