According to the many estimates, there are about 7 million slum-dwellers in the city of Mumbai, of which a sizable chunk is formed by homeless children. Struggling to survive, these children resort to any sort of work – working in tea-shops, soliciting, drug-peddling or even stealing – and become a ubiquitous, but inconspicuous part of the underbelly of the so-called city of dreams. Coming to the big city with an intent to make some money, most of these children don’t even know what’s going to happen to their own aspirations and desires – How their own fragile little dreams are going to be crushed under the heavy weight of the harsh realities of city life!
Mira Nair brought the lives of these children under the lens with her film, Salaam Bombay, a stunning chronicle on the lives of such children. Her film starts with Krishna – a little boy who works in a circus one moment, but finds himself unemployed the very next. Seeing this as an opportunity rather than a setback, he moves to Bombay to start life afresh in a big city and make enough money to be able to move back with his family.
He takes up job in a tea-stall running around with glasses under the sun and moon, occasionally drenched in the rain, serving customers on the streets in shops, homes and brothels. As days pass by, he makes friends, smokes up and even manages to save up a little dough. He has a small dream of his own – He is trying to put together 500 rupees that he can repay his mother for the destruction he caused to his brother’s motorbike so he can re-unite with them. But things are never that simple. The city of Bombay is way too fast, deceitful and harsh on the gullible and uneducated Krishna. After he is kicked out of his job for helping a friend, he takes up oddball jobs, begs, borrows and even steals to scrape up some money. But like most who come to the Bombay with stars in their eyes and eventually accept the harsh realities in a big city, he realizes that he has also become a prisoner in the city of dreams.
Although this film is mostly about a particular child called Krishna (Shafiq Syed), it could have been the tale of any of the millions of homeless kids who come to Mumbai and lose their souls to the city. Like any other child, Krishna has this endearing innocence about him that can only be associated with a child. His dream is tangibly simple – he just needs to make some money and leave the city. However, new obstacles seem to crop up in the form of love, friendship and attachment. And along with them come misery, loss (of love and identity) and betrayal.
One of the places on Krishna’s route is a brothel, where he first sees the girl of his dreams (Chanda Sharma), who’s been sold to its Madame. Crudely christened Solah Saal (literally “sixteen years”) by her new employer/owner, the pretty girl is initially mortified of her fate, but is consoled by Krishna who seems to be head over heels in love with her. However, his pristine love always leads him into trouble and he even gets a good thrashing for trying to get her out of the hell hole. Another problem for him is his drug-peddling friend Chillum (Raghubir Yadav), who, like his name suggests (Chillum is slang for weed), is constantly high, and in dire need of money that he regularly mooches off a clueless Krishna. Soon kicked out by his employer, the evil, opportunistic pimp Baba (Nana Patekar), Chillum is driven to doom by his addiction. Like a dedicated younger brother, Krishna tends to him, but is unable to save him.
However, not all is wrong with Krishna. Love and acceptance come for him in the form of Rekha (Baba’s wife and a rather compassionate prostitute) and Manju, her daughter. Manju and Rekha are perhaps the only good things that happen to an otherwise unlucky Krishna. Rekha (Aneeta Kanwar) with her good motherly concern, and Manju with her sweet, innocent love for Krishna are his only anchors in the chaotic city, where everyone is busy cheating someone else.
Of course, with so much going on, there have to be transformations for everyone, and this is perhaps what Nair wanted to tell us – Change depends on the forces around us. Solah Saal, eventually lured by the charms of a licentious, womanizing Baba, kicks Krishna out of her life, and becomes pretty much what she was terrified of earlier once she is aware of the magnetic and manipulative power of her beauty. Manju, the innocent child who is made to listen to her mother’s occupational sounds and lewd comments day after day, is deprived of the basic emotions that someone her age needs most – love and affection. She ultimately becomes attached to Krishna, and yearns for his love and attention, feeling jealous when he expresses his concern for Solah Saal. In a touching scene, she steals a pack of biscuits that Krishna wants her to deliver to Solah Saal. Her expressions tell us how empty she feels and it gives away what’s to happen to her. Krishna, corrupted by the deceit that he constantly faces, also resorts to life of crime briefly, in order to survive against the forces of nature and more specifically, the city. However, he does attempt to redeem himself in the last scene, only to lose out to the soul-sucking city of Bombay.
Nair has effectively captured the trials and tribulations of these people that encompass the dark underbelly of big metros like Bombay. She has done so without resorting to the typical masala approach that is taken up by most of her contemporaries (an approach she adheres to till date). Her films, in stark contrast to their realistic nature, make oblique reference to the masala culture prevalent in the Indian cinema (dancing to typical Bollywood numbers, reference to pop culture and famous masala actors). The film looks more like a docu-drama than a full-featured film that it was meant to be. A noteworthy point is that she picked her actors off the street to lend authenticity to the subject treatment – a strategy that paid off handsome I say! Her actors are so convincingly real, that we think we are watching footage of an unedited tape with lapses in between. Shafiq Syed may have got his moment of stardom, but take my word, he deserves far more. Same can be said for Raghubir Yadav (who went on to become a known figure in Indian television), Aneeta Kanwar, and Chanda Sharma (who doesn’t utter a word, but makes huge impact with her silence). Nana Patekar, a veteran actor, is known for his histrionic skills, so nothing much needs to be said there!
The 80s were an exciting time for the Indian Cinema (unlike the disappointing 90s that churned out one bad film after another), and Salaam Bombay will tell you why. No wonder, it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film by the Oscar committee. This eloquently told tale is truly one of the hallmarks of the Indian Cinema. If you haven’t watched Mira Nair’s best (arguably), and that’s saying a lot, do yourself a favor and buy this DVD.
9 points out of 10 for this one! We’ll take 1 off for the title. Perhaps Haraam Bombay would have been more appropriate.