31 Years On, Why Salaam Bombay Works For A Mumbai Girl

Surabhi Redkar - 57 weeks ago

Mira Nair first turned director with Salaam Bombay, 31 years ago. Watching her film makes one nostalgic for how different Maximum City looks. It also fills you with a poignancy that paints an affecting picture of an unattractive city that’s impossible to abandon. It's almost like Chillum (Raghubir Yadav), one of the key characters in the story who seems to be the manifestation of Bombay, a city that has its inhabitants hooked onto an intoxicating dream (in his case drugs) of a better life that's destined to perish.

(Nana Patekar and Anita Kanwar in a still from Salaam Bombay)

Nair’s debut feature was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, for a BAFTA in the non-English language film segment and won the Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Language film. The film won a National Award in 1989 for the Best Feature Film and also bagged International honours such as the Golden Camera and Audience Awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Nair had made a dent in the way Indian cinema had been presented for a while now.  

Capturing seedy, cruel and tragic existences in the bylanes of Mumbai’s red light district, the infamous Kamathipura, Nair revised the glamorous, made up and plastic image that Hindi film had peddled for long. Everyone, including the bad guys, were surviving here and hoping for a better life that would never come their way. Her interpretation makes you wonder about the point of this plot. But perhaps that’s the whole point - life is difficult for the poor stuck in the sex trade, but they learn to survive. 

Shot only on real-locations, the junk-filled alleys, cramped abodes of sex workers and shady streets where homeless kids live on pavements come alive in the film. One can almost smell the hint of ginger in the tea-stall that the film's protagonist, Chaipau (Shafiq Syed) works at. Nair's gaze remains unfeigned and unabashed despite the dark realities that each of the characters is facing. The film remains raw in its approach all through, even as we see a young girl, Sola Saal (Chanda Sharma) being forced into flesh trade. Nair aims to make the viewer feel a connection with the poor and their lives in this film. As she stated to Reuters in 2013, “Salaam Bombay didn’t put a halo on the poor. Instead, it said that they will teach us how to live.”

(Shafiq Syed in a still from Salaam Bombay)

It has even inspired a plethora of films, particularly for foreign filmmakers leaning on the dirt and clutter of Mumbai’s vast slums for serious drama. Slumdog Millionaire, Lion and the recent Beyond The Clouds may find themselves in the same genre but don't come close. They miss out on capturing the nerve of these children whose precociousness plays a far bigger role than their tragedies. It's visible even in the smallest of bits such as the version of the popular Hindi song, Mere Sapno Ki Raani that makes its way in this film showing how innocence dies an early death in the lives of these characters. In just a minute-long appearance, we also see a young Irrfan Khan playing the role of the literate guy who helps pens letters and posts them for the unlearned folks. In a scene where Chaipau approaches him to write a letter to his mother, an unsympathetic Irrfan asks the little one to chuck the 'Miss You' lines saying it will cost more. In this world, there's not much difference in a way one would treat children or adults as once you are on the streets, you are expected to fend for yourself. 

At the time that Salaam Bombay released in India, the mainstream cinema continued to tell stories surrounding Bombay mafia with an Amitabh Bachchan-esque Don figure. The part where Nair's film excelled though is when it introduced us to characters like Baba (Nana Patekar), who is a local hustler. The uncertainty of Baba's actions or his steely calm before the storm stares were enough to make him an antagonist who didn't need to be a cigar- smoking maniac like the other villains of his time. Someone who did come close to getting this portrayal would be Tabrez Noorani whose recent film on human trafficking showed a gruesome picture of India's flesh trade along with a character similar to Baba played ably by Manoj Bajpayee in Love Sonia.

(Director Mira Nair explaining a scene to the cast of Salaam Bombay)

Salaam Bombay even though on the outside seems to be inspired from Hector Babenco's 1981 classic Pixote. Both films dealing with the lives of street children diverge when it comes to their tones. Both are great examples of neorealism in cinema as the characters are almost retelling first-hand experiences through non-actors. At 31, Nair found herself working on this gem as she hung out extensively with street children to gather their experiences. With extensive research at hand, she later had the kids take up workshops under Barry John’s guidance to make them understand the process of filmmaking. Nair's process behind the screens is equally as fascinating as what we see on-screen. 

The film echoes Mumbai’s reality till date. Kamathipura might find it difficult today to sustain its prostitutes due to high rents, as sex workers move further down into the suburbs. But the stories of their lives have not evolved. Salaam Bombay stands out for its ability to give each of its inhabitants, a raison d’être. As Chaipau continues to dream of earning five hundred bucks just to get back to his mother living in a village outside the city, there are many others who are trying to find their own in this chaotic city. There's a Chaipau in all of us, seeking different things but latched onto a city that never wants you to give up.


Mira Nair / Oscar/ BAFTA / Golden Globes / Best Foreign Language Film / Cannes Film Festival / Pixote

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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