A unique treat for film-buffs – Salaam Bombay finds a re-release after 25 years. And to watch it the second time around is to love it more.
This was the time when Mumbai was still Bombay. We meet our child protagonist Krishna (Shafiq Syed), who leaves his home in the village after a fight with the family. And with that he leaves behind his dignity as well. In Bombay, Krishna becomes ‘chai-pav’ and transports identical cups of tea to the nearby red light area.
His ‘friend’ Chillum (Raghubir Yadav), as the name suggests, sells drugs mostly to fuel his own addiction. The neighbourhood prostitute’s (Anita Kanwar) little daughter is uncomfortable with Chai-Pav’s fondness for the new girl in the red-light area, aptly named ‘Solah Saal’. Chai Pav and Solah Saal become unlikely friends.
And through these characters we walk the mean streets of Bombay— the ruthless tea-stall owner who’ll cut from the child’s pay because he broke a glass, the pimp who lives off his girlfriend’s earnings through prostitution, the street-kids who sweep filthy chicken pens and clean slaughtered chickens for a meager pay, a girl’s virginity called ‘seal’ sold for a premium to a client, the sad story of juvenile homes and so on.
There are several moments that stay with you – the one where the prostitute takes her kid along to a client’s home, the bonding and storytelling between mother and daughter through shadows, little joys in the brothel like dancing to the tunes of Chin chin choo.
The brilliance of the film, among other things, lies in insinuating humour in the dimmest of situations. Note the scene where the kids rob an old Parsi man in his home—while one pint-sized thief realizes he wants to pee, the other cheekily sings, ‘Bombay se aaya mera dost, dost ko salaam karo’ to the befuddled man.
The actors are just so good, it’s tough believing they were actual street-children who had only a few acting workshops as guidance. The film centers on Krishna played by Shafiq Syed, who won the National award for Best Child Artist. A very compelling performer, he wins your heart the moment he’s on screen. Then there’s the brilliant Hansa Vithal playing the prostitute’s daughter, prone to scratching the glass door, whenever her mother’s seeing a client. Note the scene where the little girl is speaking on the phone and trying to ‘show’ a dancing statue to her imaginary friend on the other side. Brilliant! Her face shows scars from the soul, and her oddly grown-up behavior at times, is at odds with her angelic face.
The language of the children is foul, reflective of the world that surrounds them. So pathetic is the state and such is the nonchalance, that you wonder if a discourse about this situation is even possible.
And yet, one must confess, the film is a tad manipulative. By placing the story and its protagonists around a brothel area, the film attracts attention to only one aspect of Bombay’s underbelly. What about street-kids from other parts of the city? The obvious disparity between the two worlds is manipulative, even if effective – like the scene where a street-kid has his painstakingly put-together savings stolen and then cutting to him at a lavish party, working as a waiter.
In a recent interview co-writer-director Mira Nair claims that today things have only worsened for kids on the street. And the words spoken by a convict in a police van ring in your ears – ‘Theek ho jayega. Ek din, India mein sab theek ho jayega.’ (One day, it’ll all be fine in India). What a terrible irony.
Searing, yet bursting with innocence, Salaam Bombay is a treat for the soul. Do revisit this iconic film in the theatre. Very recommended!
Rating: Four stars
Trivia about the film:
The film released in 1988 and won the National Award for Best Feature Film.
It also won the Audience Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Shafiq Syed who won the National Film Award for Best Child Artist in 1988 is an autorikshaw driver. When the media tracked him down, he confessed that he was struggling to make ends meet for his wife and kids.
The children in the film were real street children who learnt the nuances of acting through workshops.
Irrfan Khan appears in a one-minute role in the film as a professional letter-writer.