Before she became famous for such films as Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair wrote and directed the dark and powerful Salaam Bombay!, the story of street children and prostitutes in the bustling city.
It is ironic that the film has an exclamation point in its title since it is quite a downer. However, it is full of interesting subtleties and is definitely worth seeing.
Young Krishna (How's that for a loaded name?) has been forced to leave home after setting fire to his brother's bicycle. His mother tells him that he can return home when he has earned 500 rupees, enough to pay for a new bike. Although his age is never given, Krishna seems much too young to be living on his own and says that he misses his mother when he goes to sleep.
The film starts out with Krishna working for a circus out in the country. His boss gives him some money and tells him to run to town to pick up some food. Slapping the boy, the boss tells him not to try any tricks. Krishna makes the journey, but, on the way back, realizes that he is free to escape. Unable to read or write, he asks the man at the ticket counter of the village's train station for a ticket to the nearest city. "What city is that?" Krishna asks him.
In Bombay, Krishna becomes known as Chaipu ("tea boy") and lives with a group of street children, eking out a living with various odd jobs, including selling tea and skinning chickens. Chaipu's best mate, a drug dealer, seems to lack an identity as he is called "Chillum," the word for a device used to smoke hashish. Chillum tells Chaipu that he can't remember when or why he came to Bombay. Since the boys' names come from the products they sell, Nair emphasizes that Chaipu and Chillum are dispensable to their bosses.
Chillum's boss Baba also works as a pimp in a local brothel. Baba lives with a woman named Rekha whom he claims to have rescued from the streets. They have an adorable young daughter named Manju, but Rekha still services other clients, sometimes bringing Maju with her to the johns' houses. Manju and Chaipu become friends and maintain an innocence in contrast to the harsh reality of the brothel and drug-dealing. They act like brother and sister and are really adorable together, especially in the scene where they dance to a song on the radio. Rekha seems to really care about Chaipu, but Chaipu still longs to go home to his real mother.
Baba the pimp considers himself to be superior to Chaipu and Chillum. There are several shots of him literally looking down on Chaipu from a balcony. He reprimands Manju for sleeping in the street "with riff-raff," but later on tells her to "go sleep in the street" when he wants time alone with Rekha.
One of the saddest parts of this film is the story of "Sweet Sixteen," a young virgin whom Baba brings to the brothel to sell off to a wealthy client. Sweet Sixteen is another example of a character without a or an identity. She doesn't speak Hindi, so she can't communicate with Baba, Chaipu, or any of the other prostitutes. She never speaks, but Sweet Sixteen's face is incredibly expressive.
For Chaipu, Sweet Sixteen, and Manju, their whole life is a prison. Nair shows the children's confinement through the use of bars. For instance, one scene shows Chaipu and the others cleaning out chicken cages, crouched inside the tiny jail-like structures. Manju is also sometimes outside the prison in which her mother is trapped. When her mother is with a client in the brothel, Manju often stands outside the semi-transparent door and scratches at it "like an alley cat."
Impressively, this film was shot entirely on location, and the actors seem very natural. In the opening credits, the actors' names are preceded by the word "introducing," so it is clear that it is their first feature film. In fact, all but one of the actors are non-professionals.
The most extraordinary part of the film is the crowd scene near the end. How Nair set up the elaborate parade/carnival with hundreds of people jamming the street is a mystery to me.
There are a few brief light moments in this film such as Chillum and Chaipu's interaction with an American tourist, but, overall, Salaam Bombay! is heartbreaking.
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older
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