It is difficult to watch Siddhartha in 2002, given that in the 30 years since its release, the central myth of the movie ñ that of a seeker of spiritual understanding ñ has gone from hot new idea to tired stand-up comic fodder. While 1972 audiences for Conrad Rooks’ version of Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel were doubtless familiar with the film’s content, the romance of a mystical journey through Indian religion was a great deal more fashionable than it is today. Watching the revival, the viewer has to contend with three decades of Hollywood Buddhism and jokes about Hare Krishnas in airports. Under these circumstances, it is tricky to approach the film with the degree of naïveté that it demands.
Siddhartha chronicles the life of a young, upper-middle class Brahmin, who, dissatisfied with his comfortable home life, strikes out on a quest for enlightenment along with his best friend Govinda. The handsome and prolific Indian actor Shashi Kapoor plays the title role, though his age (33 when the film was shot) and subdued demeanor tend to undercut the film’s verisimilitude somewhat. He seems too mellow and long-in-the-tooth to be the youthful hothead of Hesse’s novel. As an example, when the young Brahmin confronts his father with his desire to become an itinerant mendicant holy man, neither seems especially flustered by the thought that they will probably never see each other again. Kapoor’s presence on screen throughout the film suggests a character that is much more at ease with himself and his place in the universe than his actions would indicate.
As Siddhartha and his pal trudge through the forest, stopping to smoke ganja from a chilam and sing with their fellows, they keep up a running commentary on their spiritual progress. That progress is approximately nil, and lacking an abbot or guru to prod them, their journey seems in danger of coming to a quick end. Luckily for them, they’re contemporaries of that other Siddhartha, Gautama the Buddha. Apparently out of respect for the feelings of Buddhists, the film depicts the Buddha as an arm and a voice originating off-screen. That pose of respect now seems overformal and somewhat insincere. The Buddha’s teachings, as rendered in the film, seem both superficial and saccharine. If a few injunctions to rigorously root suffering out of your life was the sum total of Buddhist doctrine, then no wonder Siddhartha doesn’t go for it!
Having struck out on his own, while Govinda stays to drink in the Buddha’s wisdom, Siddhartha meets a serenely wise ferryman whose devotion is expressed in his unchanging routine and whose mantra is that “everything changes, and everything returns.” This clichéd view of the working-class, salt-of-the-earth sage is another trope that has lost some of its impact.
Approaching the city, Siddhartha falls in love with a lascivious courtesan who engenders his transformation from humble sadhu into boorish merchant. The love story is more readily accessible to modern audiences than the abortive stabs at enlightenment, although Siddhartha’s supposed coital prowess, which includes a fast, preposterous love scene, is perfectly absurd. The courtesan, played with impish delight by the sinuous Simi Garewal is also a creature of 1972. As the film’s embodiment of worldliness and sensual pleasure, she necessarily must chip away at Siddhartha’s virtue. But save for an initial burst of bossiness in which she gets Siddhartha cleaned up and installed in business, Garewal is stereotypically pliant and passive. Even her belated interest in enlightenment is but a pale shadow of Siddhartha’s grand quest. The idea that nirvana is for boys only doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the least.
Unsurprisingly, Siddhartha, the perpetual seeker, grows weary of the delights of the flesh. Casting aside his wealth, he returns to the river he crossed on his path to the city. Tired of wealth, tired of his quest, and apparently somewhat tired of life, Siddhartha apprentices himself to the ferryman. Though it is clear to the viewer that this decision is the correct one ñ for Siddhartha is calmer and more contemplative than ever ñ we can’t help but wonder if his sudden acceptance of things has less to do with grokking the river than it does with having done everything else and being too tired to go on searching.
Siddhartha plays well as a reinforcement to pre-existing beliefs. Its central message, that a determined search for enlightenment is doomed to failure if the seeker cannot simply be, will certainly have some currency in any time or place. Just as surely, it must have come as a great relief to the battle weary legions of baby boomers to have validated their decision to put activism aside in favor of more inward-looking pursuits.
Siddhartha. Rated R. Directed by Conrad Rooks. Starring Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal, Romesh Sharma. Playing through September 19 at the Oak Street Cinema.