Salaam Bombay! (1988)

Review #1,034

Director:  Mira Nair
Cast:  Shafiq SyedHansa VithalChanda Sharma, Raghuvir Yadav
Plot:  The story of Krishna, Manju, Chillum and the other children on the streets of Bombay.  Sometimes they can get a temporary job selling tea, but mostly they have to beg for money and keep out of the way of the police.

Genre:  Drama / Crime
Awards:  Won Camera d'Or and Audience Award (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Feature.
Runtime:  113min
Rating:  NC16 for some mature content.

A young boy sees an older girl in a car as it travels slowly through the crowded Bombay streets.  He runs barefooted alongside the vehicle, until it stops at an old shophouse beside a railway station.  Down there, an old man sells tea and snacks to passersby.  Up there, an old woman sells young women's bodies in an unlicensed brothel. 

Krishna, the boy, is attracted to the girl, but is well aware that she has been forced into prostitution.  Day and night, Krishna, like many other kids depicted in Salaam Bombay!, plough the streets for odd jobs that could barely support even a meal.  They sometimes turn to crime and sell drugs just to live a more comfortable life... of binge drinking, smoking and gambling.

This is the ugly side of Bombay, which the film is entirely shot in.  Mira Nair's first feature, one of the most stunning of debuts, explodes into life as the filmmakers document the sights and sounds of an India we sometimes read about – the poverty, the class divide, the State of things. 

This is a remarkable drama made in the tradition of neo-realism, its power and emotion arising from social conditions that continue to plague the country today.  Not all is appalling as Nair also shows the spirit of survival, and of hopeful optimism as Krishna is determined to return to his village after being cast out of home.  It is no surprise this won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.

The acting is exceptional as the 'actors' Shafiq Syed and Raghuvir Yadav in particular develop great chemistry.  They play Krishna and older buddy Chillum respectively, a relationship that contributes to a large extent the humanistic power of the film.  It is made more stunning when you learn that these are non-professional actors with minimal dramatic training.

Amid the exuberant religious celebrations, quiet humming of songs, and the rich colour of Indian costumes, Salaam Bombay! delivers a painful (or inspiring) universal message: Life, for what it is worth, is worth living for when there is self-agency.  You make something out of nothing. 

Nair, who has made some critically-acclaimed pictures like Monsoon Wedding (2001), has been fairly inconsistent over the years with failures such as the English-language movies Vanity Fair (2004) and Amelia (2009) threatening to tarnish her legacy.  The singular strength of Salaam Bombay!, however, is a reminder of Nair's breathtaking confidence and talent as one of Indian cinema's most treasured of contemporary woman filmmakers.

Verdict:  An exuberant and culturally rich film shot on the streets of Bombay that unashamedly shows the ugly side of life as a desperately poor kid.


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