A child goes missing, and his father sets out to find him. There’s a plot older than The Searchers, as ancient as mythology and folkore. Filming on the streets of modern-day Delhi and Bombay, Canadian director Richie Mehta combines elements both old and new as Mahendra (Rajesh Tailang) is forced on a desperate rescue mission. In the very first scene, we see 12-year-old Siddharth packed onto a bus, headed north to the Punjab, where his mother’s brother-in-law has found him a job in a factory. When Mahendra goes home, we understand why this child labor is necessary: The Saini family is poor, living in a single concrete walled room, with a small daughter to support. Mahendra is a “chain wallah,” a guy who walks the streets like a tinker, repairing zippers for a few rupees a day. He’s evidently illiterate, and this is the only skill he’s got. His wife Suman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) meanwhile does laundry, and the whole family gathers in delight when Siddharth calls their cell phone—their most precious household item, paid by the minute—to report he’s arrived safely. Months later, however, he fails to return for a scheduled visit.
Where’s the factory? Who runs it? How can Mahendra find the owner? With no money and no connections, he becomes an intrepid but overmatched detective. Here’s where technology—and India’s bureaucracy—begins to fail, and the cruel codes of caste and feudal obligation assert themselves. The more prosperous brother-in-law, it emerges, had ulterior motives in apprenticing Siddharth to a distant cousin. Suman, eyeing the pink basin that betokens indoor plumbing, which her family lacks, angrily rips the address page out of his planner: This scrap of paper will lead her husband first to the Punjab, then finally south to Bombay. It’s a journey he can’t afford, and gathering a financial stake takes anguished weeks. Mahendra reluctantly accepts cash from his colleagues in the zipper trade and carefully rebuffs the overture of a moneylender. Gangsters may have taken his son for slave labor, sex trafficking, or maiming-and-begging on the streets; and they could inflict still more harm on his family.
Mehta based his script on an actual incident, when a poor stranger asked him about a possibly nonexistant place called “Dongri,” where stolen children were supposedly taken. So too does Mahendra ask as he plies his trade in the bustling, indifferent city. We might think, like Mehta, that Dongri is merely urban folklore, the dark analogue of Neverland in Peter Pan. Then, in one of the quietly powerful and not-quite-despairing moments that characterize this fine film, Mahendra receives confirmation from a customer. Fixing her zippered handbag, he politely asks if she’s ever heard of Dongri; she types it into her iPhone. It’s in Bombay, she tells him, giving him the coordinates. For at least a little while longer, Siddharth gives Mahendra, and us, the small consolation of hope. Opens Fri., July 25 at Varsity. Not rated. 97 minutes.