It’s pouring rain outside when I go to meet filmmaker Richie Mehta at the downtown Toronto office where’s he’s conducting interviews for his latest effort Siddharth (debuting shortly at Venice before making its way to the Toronto International Film Festival next week). An umbrella didn’t help me stay very dry, but Mehta came unwittingly prepared, wearing what he likes to refer to as his “monsoon shoes” (a pair of well loved sandals) that he used for walking around and filming in India.
The director of the critically acclaimed Amal in 2007 (which also debuted at TIFF) returns to the lives of lower middle class residents in a section of Delhi to tell the story (inspired by a story told to him in passing) about a chain-wallah (zipper mender) named Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang, who also translated the screenplay into Hindi) who’s forced into a search for his son after he doesn’t return from a stint as a child labourer. The under-educated traditionalist is forced to look deep inside himself during his search for answers. It’s a journey that will take the man all over a country he still knows very little of outside his village and push him and his family to the emotional breaking point.
Mehta sat down with us for a great talk about how a failed project led to him finding this story, his collaboration with Tailang, writing characters that don’t necessarily align with his own beliefs or logic, returning to shoot in India, the goodness in people, and how he thinks the film will be perceived in India.
Dork Shelf: The film is sort of based on a true story that was related to you on the streets of India by a cab driver back in 2010; someone asked you about this place where they think their son might have been taken or run away to. I can see how that story would colour the film, but how did that story colour the rest of that particular trip?
Richie Mehta: It was actually the end of a really long trip and I was supposed to be there working on a film for Disney, which ended up being cancelled and never got made. That was a really tough time for me because I had invested so much time and effort on this film, and they shut it down. I wanted to come home right away and start a new project, and by this point it had been a few years since Amal, my first film.
As I was trying to get back, that was when everything was going on with the volcano in Iceland, so all flights were grounded. I couldn’t get a flight back for five weeks after the film I was working on had shut down, so I was stuck there for five weeks more on top of the six months I had been staying there for something that wasn’t going to happen. I just wanted to get out of there by that point.
I was just making the best of the situation. I mean, India really is a second home for me, but I wasn’t there at the time under the best of circumstances. In this situation when this came up I was just going to visit a friend. And it wasn’t a cab driver, but a rickshaw driver, in fact, who told me. When he started telling me the story, at first my reaction was [groggily] “Oh, man, I’m just trying to get out of here unscathed.” But this stuff was something where if you open yourself up to engaging with the person you’re with and you’re open to whatever’s being thrown at you that you begin to get caught up in this person’s life.
It sat with me, and it was tragic, but we hear a lot of these things. The incident in Delhi in Decemeber that we all know happened is no less tragic, and I was there for that, and all of this stuff finds a way to penetrate. When I’m there I’m often going there for work, and that work is kind of like a shield for stuff like this. If I don’t have that shield, then it’s just overwhelming. I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
DS: It seems kind of fated now in hindsight that you got this really great movie out of a project that fell through. Despite that shield, something great still came out of it.
RM: Oh, yeah, it was definitely fated. I wish I was still in touch with that guy. I really wish I was. But if nothing else comes out of this – and this guy tragically lost his son – and this brings to light a more positive awareness to the world in some sort of way, that’s the best I could hope for.
DS: It’s very interesting that the film not only takes its title from the name of the missing child, but it also has this obviously different meaning tied into a larger search for inner peace. What was the though process behind naming the child and the film after the same concept.
RM: I always wanted the name of the film after the name of the boy because it’s sort of the “MacGuffin” of the film, but in terms of going into the spiritual understanding of that, it came down to knowing kind of the several different meanings of Siddharth, which is the search for absolute truth, and this character at the heart of the film is definitely deep within that.
I think that to me as theme for the main character was very interesting because he set out to find this son that he probably named very arbitrarily when he was born, and ended up finding for him a type of absolute truth. He ends up finding the answers to things he never sought out as a by product.
I know for me, I used to think that when people talk about the meaning of life and the search for happiness… I don’t necessarily believe in that anymore. I think in the last few years I’ve come to understand that for me life if more centred around finding a goal; something to hold onto as a purpose. I think if you find that, the other things will come to you, be it peace, or truth, or happiness, or whatever you call it. I think the search for happiness is a bit of a fallacy because it doesn’t really exist.
DS: You’re sort of bridging that gap where belief, logic, and tradition sort of intersect. This man puts his child into this position strictly because of a tradition. He even says when reporting his son going missing that if he had a son he has to put him to work. It sounds strange to him that his young child wouldn’t be working. It’s an awakening of this logic that never crossed his mind and a challenge to his own personal beliefs about family. What’s it like trying to write a character like that who is so engrained in his ways that it would be hard for an outside observer – sometimes even from within his own country – to understand?
RM: That’s a really great question and really appropriate when talking about our process. I wrote the film in English and then Rajesh, who plays Mahendra, translated it all into Hindi. We worked really closely together and had a lot of discussions about this, and one time he said “We must be very careful to not infuse our own logic onto this guy.” Because he’s very different. That’s a bit of an awakening. You’re absolutely right because in the beginning of the film, he’s kind of aloof in how he sticks to this tradition that we might not find logical, and when these events start to happen, we as a viewing audience know more about what might be happening to his son than he does. Just based on what we understand about how harsh the world can be, and economics, and human trafficking, and things like that, and by the end of the film we will still know more than he does, ultimately, but these now larger world politics and economics have begun to seep into his world and alter his way of thinking to make him slowly realize this his way of thinking isn’t the best and it isn’t logical. That is exactly by design part of the evolution of the character throughout the film.
And you’re right that we’re infusing the logic as he goes because that’s even a part of how we shot the film. It was very intimate and solitary at the beginning. Even when he’s at home or at work you almost always see him by himself.
DS: He has an unwavering conviction and pride to him that makes him think everything is always perfectly normal at the start. It leads to him ultimately being the kind of person who later on will end up demanding answers as to why his life and family have been thrown out of balance because he can no longer process it or deny that it’s happening.
RM: And obviously as the film goes on and he opens up, he actually gets smaller and smaller of a presence in a much bigger world, and his way of thinking isn’t working anymore and he’s struggling to find something else to find a way to get through this, which obviously his father kind of helps with later on through the rooted tradition and adaptation.
DS: It’s interesting how that journey becomes bigger as he gets smaller. It starts in his home, then branches out to a village, then to a factory, then to the city at large, then to a bigger city, and finally to Bombay, which to him must just be overwhelming. By the time he gets to where he needs to be there’s only one lone taxi driver who can offer this man any sort of solace or comfort, and even then there’s not much that can be done. It’s hard as someone who doesn’t live there full time to get to the heart of that kind of poverty. It’s not necessarily an unhappy family…
RM: No! It’s really not! He’s not destitute. He’s not a beggar…
DS: …until this point they’ve always found a way, but I imagine it would be hard to sort of research how someone in India and in that particular kind of profession and family dynamic would be able to go about finding a child that has disappeared.
RM: The starting point was really saying “What do I understand about family here and in general around the world?” It became a step-by-step process. When I first outlined the film, I knew basically right from the start that it’s a patriarchal society that he lives in. The wife wasn’t going to work. She was going to be at home running the house. Certain basics and routine, like giving him water everything he comes home, would infuse their daily lives. Something that Rajesh and I talked a lot about was how the children would be running the technology of the house. That’s why you always see this man’s daughter as sort of the keeper of their cell phone. Even at seven years old they will know more about phones than their parents do.
As we went on and I wrote more and more and Rajesh and I talked about everything we brainstormed how the wife would react, as well, It’s one thing to just write a guy’s journey, but you have to show both sides of this. And for the youngest daughter, all I could really do was just imply the influence the situation would imprint on her. But this is a society where you just don’t talk about these things. You don’t talk about feelings and how you react to things. Sometimes it comes out as pure catharsis and it can be helpful, but it’s rarely ever talked about as one goes along day to day. On one hand, that’s great for coping for someone like our main character who just muscles on like he does. On the other hand, by the end of the film there’s a suggestion that we [don’t know what these characters] are feeling. I’ve seen people in that environment where mothers and fathers have lost their minds over losing children, and I’ve seen people just get up and go to work like nothing happened.
My whole team really went out of the way, though, to show that this guy is surrounded by goodness. There are good people and good things all around him and in pockets where he would least expect to find that. I think there’s enough tragedy that underlines the film as a whole. There’s plenty of that to go around.
DS: It’s very easy for most viewers to say and probably agree that what this man did was wrong, but he’s also not an inherently terrible person unworthy of help.
RM: Not at all, and I think the people I show around him are not, either. People willing to help him are all around him, and people who don’t are generally people who don’t want to get involved, and I think we as people can identify with that, too. Like there’s a cop who says he can’t help and he kind of brushes him off. He’s just a traffic cop at a bus stand and he doesn’t want to get involved. I kind of understand that. Even the people that brush him off are understandable as people. They aren’t being mean. He’s surrounded by goodness, and compared to the tragedy of his situation, there’s no business that people have being that good to each other. To me that just speaks to the situation.
DS: You had worked with Rajesh before, so how did you come to collaborate on this one beyond just a simple actor/director relationship?
RM: There was an actress in Amal named Seema Biswas, who played a lawyer and was in Deepa (Mehta)’s last two films. She had introduced me to Rajesh when I did that film because, again, I was looking for someone to do the Hindi translations. I wrote that one, as well, in English and I knew that had to be in Hindi. She suggested Rajesh because he did a lot of translations for plays in Delhi and he taught linguistics and drama. He’s an actor and a teacher. We went back and forth first on the translations on Amal, and he became Rupinder Nagra’s dialogue coach for that film. So all three of us worked very closely to create those characters, and I worked so closely with Rajesh that I knew I wanted to work with him in a straight actor role at some point. It was a really close collaboration.
I was definitely taken aback by what he was doing as an actor, too. Since we worked so closely all the way through, there was never a point where we never knew what any given scene was going to be about or what the point of the whole exercise was. But at the end of the day, I’m responsible for the directing and he’s responsible for the lead actor. I’m just there to guide him, but he also went out and did his homework. He actually went out and learned how to be a chain-wallah. He trained and learned the craft completely. He could make a living off it right now. He was fixing our zippers on set. (laughs) He really did the work and he adapted that sort of body language… like how he chews on his scarf when he has nothing to do or say. That scarf became a part of him. It was in the way he learned how to speak through the megaphone that he carries, and that was funny because if you ever listen to those guys with their megaphones, it’s all pretty incoherent. (laughs) We made it a little more coherent, but it’s still kind of garbled, and that garble was what Rajesh brought into that. He brought the attitude even with how he walked. In that part of India, people of his stature don’t really walk with purpose. I’m totally generalizing, but there’s more of a saunter to the walk. All of those little things there, he did them
DS: What was it like filming in those kinds of locations? Were they places that you had scouted for projects before that just kind of stuck out in your memory?
RM: Actually a bit of both. Where they all live is where they shot Amal. His home was there and the places around it. It’s a corner of Delhi that was kind of our home base. I knew the community and there was so much support on the first film that I was hoping they would support us this time, and they thankfully did. We needed an enclosed environment and based on the script that I had written, we needed a place where we could have an area where we would have kids playing cricket in the alleyway. And that of all things wasn’t easy to find that type of place in Delhi where no cars are going.
DS: That makes even more sense now when those kids say it’s the only good place in the neighbourhood to play.
RM: (laughs) It actually is because I looked everywhere! Then, you know, a lot of places that we wnet to outside of that – like train stations and larger city areas – are things I never would have dared to try on Amal because it would cost too much. We did go there kind of (in Amal), but it was long range stuff and we stayed out of everybody’s way. We never did whole scenes there like we do here. We got closer to perfecting our technique. Our crews were so small and our cameras were so advanced this time and so tiny, and we really figured out and plotted out exactly what we were doing before we landed. Every day we finished a couple of hours early, which is astounding for any film production and something that never happened to me before this. (laughs)
DS: Congratulations of both Venice and TIFF, by the way, but I was curious if there was an Indian release in the works, and if so how do you see the film as being perceived, since in some respects it could rub certain people the wrong way and it seems like it would be a harder sell there?
RM: It’s definitely touching a nerve. There will be an Indian release, but no immediate plans. We don’t have a distributor there yet, but hopefully soon. But I’m not really sure how it’s going to be perceived. I’ve shown a few people in India who are in the film business and several who aren’t, and on both sides the response has been pretty positive because (A) I think people know we aren’t embellishing anything and (B) we’re not showing the exploitation of anything. On the one hand it touches a nerve, but on the other hand because they are seeing very pleasant and positive characterizations, I think people are compelled.
At the same time this is the kind of film that would very much be considered Art House fare in India. There’s no mainstream hook for that. We’re really going to be speaking to a certain kind of Art House viewer.
It’s kind of a bit of self-criticism, in a way. It’s not like one of us from Canada comes in and says we shouldn’t be doing this. I think every person in this film is as Indian as the next person and it all speaks to the same general experience. They are all trying, so I think it’s great that there’s a lot of self criticism coming from within it.
Siddharth screens at the Toronto International Film Festival:
Tuesday, September 10th, Winter Garden Theatre, 5:00pm
Thursday, September 12th, TIFF Bell Lightbox, 12:00pm