Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1989)
Salaam Bombay is the story of a young boy – Krishna (Shafiq Syed) who works odd jobs with a travelling circus. Sent on a trivial errand one day by the circus manager, Krishna returns to discover the circus has packed up and moved on without him, leaving him behind. Krishna uses what little money he has to buy a train ticket to the nearest (cheapest) destination, which turns out to be Bombay. “Come back a film star” the ticket agent tells him.
In Bombay, Krishna gets a job as a teaboy for a chai concession stand and spends his days ferrying chai round the red light district, earning himself the nickname “Chaipau” from the drugdealers, prostitutes and other streetkids that come to make up his surrogate family. The rest of the film documents Krishna's life in Bombay – the relationships he forms, the daily hurdles he faces, the moments of happiness and humanity and compassion, even amid the grime and noise and daily grind of the city, that Krishna encounters, and the struggle he has to save Rs500 so he can finally go home.
Salaam Bombay hurts to watch in places. It actually, physically hurts. There are parts of this film that are so raw, and so real, than even days later I'm still thinking about them.
Like the poignant letter the illiterate Krishna dictates to be sent to his parents.
This is no glamourous, polished, idealised version of life on the streets - the film is scripted, but filmed documentary style – every location is real, and in many cases hidden cameras were used to better capture authentic street/crowd scenes featuring real public. Only a handful of the uniformly exceptional cast were experienced actors (notably Nana Patekar as Baba, Aneeta Kanwar as Rekha, Raghuvir Yadav as Chillum, and Shaukat Azmu as the Madame – also keep an eye out for a very young Irrfan Khan as the scribe who takes down Krishna's letter, and Shashi Kapoor's daughter Sanjna Kapoor in a small role as a reporter).
Sanjna is credited as "the journalist at Baba's'' and was TECHNICALLY the first of the women born into the Kapoor family (before Lolo and Bebo) to venture into films. But her foray into acting was very, VERY brief.
The street kids were played by actual street kids who participated in a special workshop pre-filming (apparently partly to teach them how to act naturally; they were performing too melodramatically having seen their share of Bollywood films); the prostitutes are real prostitutes.
The Bombay of Bollywood films is a dream factory, a city where people go to make their wildest fantasies come true. A plucky village girl can become a supermodel; a lonely writer can become a star journalist AND find love. Anyone can become a film star, so long as it's cosmically destined.
The Bombay Salaam Bombay presents offers a different picture: the city is a jungle where only the wily survive, so harden your heart.
There's a theme that runs through the movie about sorting out the truth from the illusion – Baba (Nana Patekar) makes a habit, it seems, of making empty promises to the naïve young prostitutes when they enter the brothel, claiming he will take them away from ''this life'' as soon as he has saved a little money. Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav) prefers the dreamy, illusory escape offered by heroin to his everyday existence. Rekha (Anita Kanwar) kids herself that a brothel is an ideal home for her tiny daughter Manju (Hansa Vithal). And Krishna – or Chaipau, nobody even calls him by his name in the big bad city – clings to the illusion that one day he can go home.
But there's joy and warmth and laughter too. Even amid the grim, mundane, gloomy realities of the street, Mira Nair imbues Salaam Bombay with abundant colour and a sense that, although life is tough, these characters survive, not least because even in the darkest moments compassion and humanity peek through. Krishna and Manju dancing exuberantly together to Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu made me smile SO HARD;
And in fact, every time Manju was onscreen she was absolutely radiant.
Krishna hauling a strung-out Chillum up off the street made me sob.
I remember seeing Monsoon Wedding and wondering what the fuss was about (honestly, really not a fan) but after seeing this film which has rocketed its way to the top of my all time favourites list I may have to give it a second chance.