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Director Mira Nair directed and co-wrote the feature film Salaam! Bombay in 1988. Starring Shafiq Syed, Nair creates a documentary-like fiction piece that is a heart-wrenching depiction of the lives of children in the slums of Bombay. KIZJ: (4/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin
“Krishna” (Shafiq Syed) is an 11-year-old boy who has set fire to his older brother’s motorbike in return for being bullied. Although he felt it was for good reason, his mother sends him to go work for a circus as punishment. He cannot return until he has made 500 rupees to pay his brother back. When Krishna’s boss orders him to run an errand, he returns to find that the circus has left without him. Now homeless and jobless, Krishna’s determination to earn back the money leads him to buy a ticket to Bombay.
The big city is especially harsh on newcomers—the young boy loses all his possessions soon after his arrival. In this gritty, bustling, and harsh city, he is renamed as “Chaipau.” Even with a job as a runner at a tea stall, making back the money is very difficult for Chaipau. His customers smash his tea glasses, and his mentor steals his hard-earned money for drugs. As Chaipau runs up and down the winding stairs with the trays of tea, he witnesses poverty at its worst.
On one of his runs, he passes a car with a beautiful young girl sitting in the back seat. “Sola Saal” (Chanda Sharma) is a 16-year-old girl who is being taken to a brothel so that her virginity can be sold to the highest bidder. She yearns to be let free, but she is forcefully kept in her room as a prized commodity. “Manju Golub” (Hansa Vithal) is another girl growing up in this community—her mother is a prostitute, her father is a drug dealer, and she spends her days asking people to play with her whilst occasionally following Chaipau. These are only a few examples of the many children thrown into a world where even adults struggle to survive.
Mira Nair grew up in Bhubaneswar and moved to Delhi at the age of 11. After an early interest in English literature, she left to study at Harvard on a full scholarship. Much of her early film work focused on exploring various aspects of Indian culture through documentaries. This experience is probably what inspired the more documentary-like approach in this film—her first narrative feature.
The film’s realism and observational style remind me of the more recent 2018 film, Capernaum, set in Beirut, Lebanon, and directed by Nadine Lebaki. (Read our Q&A with Nadine Lebaki here!) In both movies, the viewer is able to learn about life on the streets through the perspectives of young children. Nair and Lebaki’s approach towards casting was also very similar. (Read about Nadine Lebaki here!) They both went through the casting process, getting to know children who were not trained actors because they wanted to keep as close to reality as possible. In many ways, it helped the story feel unforced. We get to know the environment and its people by examining the daily actions and interactions of its characters. To aid this further, everything was filmed on location. Nair tried to keep as much of the realities of life on the streets of Bombay as possible.
Although it didn’t perform very well with the general public, it hailed many wins and nominations in the festival circuit, including two wins at the Cannes Film Festival and nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and BAFTA. Mira Nair’s film is as much about the cycle of poverty in the lower social classes as it is about asking at what point is it okay for people to ignore basic morals to make ends meet? The children are forced to grow up extremely quickly amidst the grueling realities of child labor and prostitution. The audience watches how adults betray them, how they lose their innocence and grapple with the idea of the harsh reality.
Emotionally, this was a very difficult film to watch because for two hours, rather than passing these children by as we would in real life, we live in the center of their world.
Q: Does Salaam! Bombay pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Yes. Little “Manju Golub” (Hansa Vithal) tells her mother, “Rekha Golub” (Anita Kanwar), that the song on the radio is “her song,” leading the two to dance together.