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June 16, 2016

Salaam Bombay!

by Franz Patrick


Salaam Bombay! (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is always a breath of fresh air when one comes across a movie with an attitude that rejects what is typically expected from the plot. This approach benefits the film immensely because the director, Mira Nair, hopes to capture and tell about real lives in Bombay—lives of the prostitutes, drug dealers, pimps, and street children—without the glamour and polish of Hollywood. To tell this story any other way would have been a lie.

Krishna (Shafiq Syed) works in a circus whose owner orders him to run to the nearest store and purchase three cans of Ganesh paan masala. The boy dutifully follows his boss’ order but when he returns, his crew is no longer there. He has an idea: He will use the change from his purchase, go to a ticket booth, and ask the person who works there to book him a ticket to the nearest city.

“Salaam Bombay!,” based on the screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala, is like watching a most marvelous dance: so full of vitality, rhythm, and each movement of the subplot demands careful attention for one might miss relishing its subtleties. The picture is equipped with three perspectives: Krishna, who lives, eats, and sleeps on the streets; Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav), a dealer who gets addicted to drugs he is supposed to be selling; and Rekha (Anita Kanwar), a prostitute with a daughter who sits outside while she tends to clients. The director focuses on and balances each perspective with skill, patience, and precision. She makes very interesting choices.

One might wonder what the point is in telling the story of these people. Some might be repelled before even giving the material a chance because the nature of what the characters do is not “respectable”—or something of that sort. On one level, I admired that Nair takes on an approach that is neither offensive nor defensive. Instead, she offers an alternative: Why not tell the story of the marginalized, those we avoid when we see them walking toward our direction, those we may not necessarily think about on a daily basis?

On another level, I admired the writer and director for choosing not to place easy answers on our laps. In a way, the setup is a perfect feel-good story: A boy who does not have a family takes on the streets of Bombay. Surely he must have a happy ending, right? Otherwise, there would be no point of watching the film. Here, such expectations are turned on their heads repeatedly. There are a lot of sad and heartbreaking moments and yet there are glimpses of lightness and hope, too. Oftentimes they are sandwiched and twisted between and through one another that it becomes very difficult to understand our initial feelings from watching a scene. That is how we know we are watching something rich, something that is worth our time.

Given that some of the performers, especially the actual street children, have no acting experience, there is a rawness to how they look and present themselves. However, this is also a limitation because some of the emotions that require being communicated with a dash of complexity and clarity get lost in the process. I wished that some of the other street kids had played more important roles or given more chances to tell their own stories. It seems the director is also aware of this drawback and so the main group of kids that the lead protagonist interacts with is used only when absolutely necessary.

Great films have a handful of things in common. One of them is the background being alive. Shot in real locations rather than a studio, I cherished small details like how a man holds chicken to be sold by their feet, how passengers look absolutely bored or tired while waiting for the train to arrive, how vendors handle their carts and products. There is no detail too small. If only most pictures could have a fraction of the ambition of “Salaam Bombay!”, audiences would likely expect more from the movies.

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