By Lisabelle Tan
Directed by accomplished filmmaker Mira Nair and starring actual street children as cast, Salaam Bombay! is a gritty and gripping narrative chronicling the lives of Bombay’s young vagrants.
Ousted from his village home and abandoned by a travelling circus, young Krishna (Shafiq Syed) stumbles to the train station, purchases a grubby ticket and is thrust into the pulse of Bombay; where the glossy sheen of glamour thinly veils the city’s sinister and squalid underbelly. Krishna sheds his name and becomes Chaipau, ‘tea-boy’, as he takes on his first odd-job. By default, Chaipau is accepted into a misfit community of pimps, prostitutes, drug-dealers and vagrant street-children like himself. This community includes Baba (Nana Patekar) the drug dealer of the street, his lover and prostitute Rekha (Aneeta Kanwar), their daughter Manju (Hansa Vithal), Chillum (Raghubir Yadav) a substance abuser and young Nepalese prostitute Sola Saal (Chandra Sharma).
Peering vicariously into the complex social system and lives of these characters, the audience is privy to their despair and elation, solidarity and solitude, struggles and triumphs amidst the realistically portrayed, harsh social reality. The streets are peopled with maddening crowds and the scenes abuzz with chatter and noise.
Exuding alpha masculinity, the cruel Baba commands respect and submission from the people around him. Along with the sensual Rekha, both characters tread the tenuous balance between possession and submission in their volatile power play, and the searing on-screen sexual chemistry.
The carnal desire between the couple is starkly contrasted against Chaipau’s innocent crush on Nepalese prostitute Sola Saal. Syed convincingly portrays the tentative tenderness of a young boy’s first crush on the aloof and unimpressed Sharma. His gestures of kindness and selfless giving are achingly rare amidst the sensual and selfish transactions of the other characters.
Precisely because corruption in its various manifestations is rife in the streets of Bombay, the fleeting moments of shared camaraderie become all the more poignant. Rekha, Manju and Chaipau dancing freely in Rekha’s cramped quarters, Chillum and Chaipau chuckling over drugs in the deserted cemetery and the street-children relishing the film in the cinema are slices of humanity, amidst poverty and depravity. The corruption in the streets and degeneration of the characters are temporary eclipsed by these vestiges of hope, and even innocence.
Still, the piercing juxtaposition of the adults’ debauchery and the insidious corruption of precocious street-children pervade the entire film through the scene transitions and witty dialogue. The dialogue is peppered with double entendre, innocuously uttered by children, then distorted by the adults who masterfully re-echo these words as sexual innuendoes. Not all street-children remain blissfully innocent – the young street boys speak boldly in sexualized slang and gossip about prostitutes in lewd jokes. Perhaps the shock value of the film lies in the sexually precocious dialogue of the street-children, beyond the strongly suggestive but never explicit sexual transactions of the adult characters. Scenes swiftly transition from the hushed secrecy of the adults’ rendezvous to that of street-children sleeping innocently by each other’s side on the streets. Questions of morality creep in as the film’s visual and aural aesthetics conflate paradoxical notions into a riveting narrative.
Even as the lives of the characters and innocence of the children have been corroded by the avarice, betrayal, cruelty and deception they have experienced, the city of Bombay swivels madly on – leaving her street-children to sift through the shambles of their lives, unaccompanied and unloved.
Salaam Bombay! was the first Indian film to win the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. Screened as part of the Perspectives Film Festival 2014, the Singapore premiere will be showing at GV Vivocity on 17 October at 7:30pm. Tickets are currently on sale at SISTIC.
Read our review of Perspectives Film Festival’s opening film, Short Term 12, here.