Nargis, the legendary actress, once deplored Satyajit Ray´s cinema stating that his films gave the wrong kind of impression of India to the west. She felt that they adhered to the western ideal image of India as being poor and poverty-ridden. It would have been interesting to know what she would think of "Salaam Bombay!" though she passed away years before it was made. "Salaam Bombay!" has the distinction of being the second ever Indian film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, a good thirty years after the classic "Mother India".
Mira Nair´s movie debut (after a few short films) is about a side of Bombay that Hindi cinema has rarely ever explored. Before "Salaam Bombay!” the seedy and dark underbelly of the city had mostly been portrayed in the regular
masala manner leaving audiences detached to what was happening onscreen. The image of Bombay (or Mumbai as it now likes to be known) is realistically portrayed and Nair went to extreme lengths to ensure that the real throb of the city came across, that it did not seem like a caricature. Real-life poor children living on the streets were cast in important roles thus giving them a big break. They were very excited but, of course, they were not natural actors. They acted the way they had learnt only off Bollywood potboilers with exaggerated mannerisms and over-the-top gestures. It was Nair who encouraged the small actors to allow their natural side to emerge and to embrace realistic gestures rather than overblown ones.
The film looks at many characters´ lives but the thread that links them together is Krishna (Shafiq Syed). He is left at a circus by his mother who demands that he earns money before he comes back home. One day Krishna loses the circus and decides to begin a journey by buying a ticket with the little money he has and hopping on a train to some city with bright lights. That city turns out to be Bombay. There he gets a job as a chaipau, delivering cups of tea to people in the neighborhood. Through this job, Krishna gets to know various people such as Sola Saal (Chanda Sharma) the reluctant prostitute, Rekha (Aneeta Kanwar), a hooker who has married her pimp (Baba, played by Nana Patekar) and drug addict Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav). Krishna´s plan is to make money from his daily jobs and once he has got to his target, he can go home and give it to his mother. The film focuses on the repercussions of Krishna´s hard work on the streets of Bombay and the day-to-day happenings in the lives of his new friends.
It is actually the ticket-seller who randomly chooses the city that Krishna will go to (as the little boy does not know much about cities or the country). "Ja Bombay, hero ban ke aa! (Go to Bombay, come back a hero)" The man says to Krishna. In a way, the boy does wish to come back a hero. He wishes to come back with enough money that he could not earn at the circus and make his mother proud. He wishes to come back from Bombay and come home to a loving family. Plans do not always go the way that you want them to and Krishna finds it difficult to leave the big bad city. The reference to ´hero´ by the ticket-vendor is also a reference to the fact that Bombay is a movie-making capital. It is a dream factory that churns out fantasies, which the dominantly poor audience devour. The poor choose to watch masala movies as a way of forgetting temporarily about the difficulties in their lives. Mira Nair shows the influence of big-budget Hindi movies on the characters through their constant parodying of popular songs, the references to "Mr. India" (a hugely popular film at the time that "Salaam Bombay!" was being made) and the young boys´ lewd jokes about Mandakini and Sridevi. Interestingly, this film is totally opposite to the potboiler movies that are mentioned... Gritty realism and bold display of issues affecting people is something that is rare in a 1980´s Bollywood motion picture. A scene shows a boy peeing while singing "Bijli ki rani main hoon aayi, kehte hain mujhko...". In effect, "Salaam Bombay!" takes Bollywood conventions and pees on it.
Loss of innocence is a theme that is explored here. Manju (Hansal Vithal) is a particularly interesting character because she is the daughter of Rekha, a girl who is sometimes forced to watch her mother entertain her punters. A girl who wants to play with her father, a man who is more interested in drugs and women. Despite knowing and seeing so much stuff that a girl her age should not, she is still a little girl deprived of love and care. Her mother loves her deeply but her ´job´ often separates her from her daughter. Manju seeks attention in her friendship with Krishna. When Krishna becomes infatuated with Sola Saal and sends her a present (a biscuit) through Manju, Manju goes somewhere else and eats the biscuit herself. She wants Krishna´s love for herself. Sola Saal is the teenage girl left at a brothel by an uncaring family member. She has a high price tag because she is a virgin. Her delighted madam sets about trying to prepare Sola Saal for the highest bidder desperate to pay for a virgin. It is a stark irony then that a lot of money can be made out of losing innocence. Krishna himself does things that an eleven year old boy should not be doing such as taking drugs and drinking alcohol.
Though these children face a difficult life on the streets, the film celebrates their strength to keep going day after day. Social campaigners may cry out and protest that Manju should not be living with a mother like Rekha. Indeed, that is what happens in the film. Manju is separated from her family and put into special care where other deprived children are kept. However, Manju´s personality undergoes a severe change. She is no longer the carefree girl who just wandered the streets. She is quietly distressed and depressed about being separated from her mother. The issue of whether it is better for children to be in care or living in an unsuitable environment (either on the streets or staying with a mother with a risky job) is raised here. At least with her mother, Manju got certain moments of love, attention and bonding. She may not have exactly loved the way she was living but she had accepted it. Being taken away from all that and being placed with complete strangers makes Manju a traumatised girl. "Salaam Bombay!" also highlights the way that some poor people take advantage of their situation to exploit or please foreign tourists and reporters. To make an attractive English journalist happy, Baba attempts to entertain her by making Chillum take part in a humiliating exercise. Instead, the reporter is disgusted by what is happening and walks away. Baba is then disappointed that she does not see him as some kind of hero. There is a message here that attacks the way the poor continue to peddle that exotic and mythical image of India for westerners thus reinforcing stereotypes. It also works both ways with tourists coming to holiday in India with a stereotyped image in their minds.
Acting on the part of the children is impeccable. Experience of living the rough life in the city must have helped them, as their performances are true-to-life. Shafiq Syed and Hansal Vithal pour their hearts into their performances. It is very surprising and also very rare to see child actors perform so well. Acting by the rest of the cast of children is also noteworthy and Sarfuddin Quarassi, who plays Koyla, is hilarious when he is making dirty jokes and terrorizing old men while singing songs. Aneeta Kanwar is wonderful in her portrayal of a down to earth prostitute. Where she mostly leaves her mark is in the second half when her character is unable to bear the pain of having her daughter taken away from her. Chanda Sharma is also outstanding as the Nepalese girl, Sola Saal, who does not speak a single word of Hindi and does not even reveal her real name. She spends the entire film acting and emoting silently with remarkable vivacity. With such strong performances by others, Nana Patekar does tend to get a bit overshadowed but he is still very good nonetheless. His role has villainous shades to it but Patekar manages to make the audience see the compassionate side of his character through his love affair with Sola Saal. Raghuvir Yadav (credited in the opening titles as ´Raghubir´) as Chillum is competent but does get to shine in the scenes where Chillum becomes desperate for more drugs when his supply has been cut off. Watch out for Irfan Khan in a blink and miss cameo as the man who writes out a letter for Krishna.
Sandi Sissel´s photography is another strong point of "Salaam Bombay!". I love the way the film begins in a dessert and Sissel provides an exotic and dreamy look to the movie. Yet she only did this so it could provide a stark contrast to the way the city of Bombay is shot. Sissel adheres to the look of a documentary and often brings across a gritty and grainy vision of Bombay. Mira Nair´s direction is actually invisible but I mean that in a positive way. The entire film flows so naturally and not once do you feel that this is something that is being acted out. Since the film juggles so many stories, editing can be a very hard job. But Barry Alexander Brown has carried out his work with élan. The screenplay has been co-written by Mira Nair and Sooni Taraporevala. The ending is quite dissatisfying in the sense that we do not get the opportunity to see Krishna be happy or obtain his goal. I guess if that did happen then maybe the film would lose its sense of realism. The ending is also bleak for the character of Rekha but it is also more optimistic as she finally breaks out of her own trap and unwanted lifestyle.
After this phenomenal movie, Mira Nair has gone onto more critical acclaim with works such as "Mississippi Masala", "Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love" and "Monsoon Wedding".