Salam Bombay! (1988)
Directed by: Mira Nair | 110 minutes | drama | Actors: Shafiq Syed, Anjaan, Amrit Patel, Murari Sharma, Ram Moorti, Sarfuddin Qurassi, Raju Barnad, Raghubir Yadav, Aneeta Kanwar, Nana Patekar, Irshad Hashmi, Hans Vithal, Mohanraj Babu, Chandrashekhar Naidu, Kishan Thapa, Shauka Sharma Azmi, Haneef Zahoor, Jamila, Ramesh Rai, Shaukat H. Inamdar, Irfan Khan, Neil Gettinger, Yunus Parvez, Habib Azmi, Ramesh Gohil, Sanjna Kapoor, Biswadeep Chatterjee, Ameer Bhai, Ajju Kasam, Double Battery Stafford, Rana Singh, Ali Bhai, Dinshaw Daji, Jayant Joshi, Prashant Jaiswal, Joyce Barneto, Hassan Kutty, Preshit Shringarpure. BD Sharma, Mohammed Ali, Dilip Das, Alfred Anthony, Ramesh Deshavani, Anjan Srivastava, Eric Paymaster, Sulbha Deshpande, Mohan Tantaru, Sheikh Haroon
“Salam Bombay!” the title of Mira Nair’s drama about street life in Bombay adorns the DVD cover enthusiastically, as if it were a city of limitless possibilities and life really began there. Welcome! Goodbye! Take your shot! It’s the epicenter of all those merry Bollywood movies and it certainly does, but for Krishna and many other street children in Bombay, to whom the film is dedicated, life is all misery. “Don’t leave,” a character in the film says when his wife wants to leave him, “Bombay will devour you.” That’s how it is, and director Nair makes sense in her film in an honest, empathetic way. Fortunately, a film that, despite the bad circumstances of its characters, also has warmth and charm, and always continues to fascinate.
Nair shows in no uncertain terms what reality is like. It also doesn’t suddenly get better, no matter how much the children try to get out of their miserable situation. There are straws and moments that offer hope and relief – such as Krishna’s secret repository of money that he slowly plans to save 500 rupees in, his friendship with the grown man Chillum, his romantic feelings and tentative bond with the Sri Lankan girl. “Sweet Sixteen” that will be sold as a virgin, or very briefly the surrogate mother bond that he may develop with Baba’s wife – but the hard conclusion is that for 99% of the street children in Bombay the future is hopeless and so there is no easy way out for Krishna either. This isn’t a fairy tale like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, in which a street kid just happened to gain the wisdom needed to answer all the questions in a quiz and win a million. Anyone who feels involved in the plight of street children in India and doesn’t want to be bothered with forced feel-good endings so as not to leave the viewer feeling bad, would do well to ‘Salaam Bombay!’ to give it a chance.
‘Salam Bombay!’ is authentic and refuses to brush off the sharp edges of the story, but that doesn’t mean the viewer will go into a depression watching the film. The children are disarming in their childhood, and it is nice to see that they can always experience joy, no matter how serious their situation. Beautiful is the scene where Krishna for the first time meets Baba’s wife, who is a prostitute, and her daughter Manju and spontaneously dances with her when her favorite song is on the radio. It is also fun when Kirshna watches a Bollywood movie with his buddies in the cinema and they all sit in their chairs dancing and singing with the actress in the film. And it’s cute when Krishna brings a chick for the girl “Sweet Sixteen” while cleaning chicken coops.
But ‘Salam Bombay!’ Definitely not a happy movie. Krishna is robbed, beaten, thrown in jail, and cannot trust anyone. Sweet Sixteen is a girl who is kidnapped and groomed (circumcised, for example) to be sold as a virgin to the highest bidder. Chillum, Krishna’s only (adult) friend for a long time, is ruined by drugs and unemployment and disappears from Krishna’s life. In the end Krishna is really on his own and Bombay cannot help him.
It also touches on the subject of prostitution and pimps and how difficult it is to raise a child with such a (mandatory) way of life. It is terrible to see how Baba’s wife slowly loses her daughter, when the girl is arrested and will have to be raised by a government institution because her mother was a prostitute. She wants to stop and visibly loves her daughter very much, but her home situation is untenable. Her husband Baba says he saved her from prostitution and wants the best for her, but is very domineering and at times sadistic for his staff. Yet he also sometimes seems to want to improve his life, for example when he wants to remove Sweet Sixteen from her doomed world, is (sometimes) tender to his wife and seems to really care about his daughter when he visits her in prison. So even one of the film’s biggest villains isn’t completely bad and is designed in three dimensions.
‘Salam Bombay!’ comes across as authentic as a documentary. The noise in the streets of Bombay and the behavior of the children is literally taken from life, often with images of real street children present in the background. It is a film that impresses and shows how much the innocence and ease of children must be preserved. Do not let Krishna and his friends languish and mature naturally. We owe that to them as humanity.