Salaam Bombay – An Indian Tragedy

If Danny Boyle had made Salaam Bombay, would the movie have been subjected to the same venomous attacks that some members of the Bollywood ignorati have heaped upon his new award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Most likely, yes. A lot of calumnies would have been heaped upon Danny.

After all, Danny is a gora, a westerner from the U.K. What does he know about India? Danny’s been in Bombay for only a few months. He’s merely out to strike it rich upon the backs of our poor street kids of Bombay.

Such would have been the reaction from some of our frothing-at-the-mouth, seething-with-jealousy, ranting-like-nuts, know-nothing Bollywood idiots back home.

No matter the depressing reality that much of what we see in Salaam Bombay or Slumdog Millionaire is very true. The lot of the poor kids in urban India is infinitely worse than the worst Dickensian nightmare you can envision. Worse than what you see on the screen for 90 minutes in a dark room as you constantly dip your fingers into the large popcorn tub and sip that sickening cola amidst hypocritical sighs.

A Movie on Two Levels

We saw Salaam Bombay the other day (if you live in the U.S., the movie is available at the online DVD rental service Netflix), the third element in the troika of fine movies showing the hard lives of children in dreadful urban shanties (the other two are Cidade de Deus and Slumdog Millionaire).

Unlike most Bollywood, Kollywood or Hollywood balderdash, movies like Salaam Bombay ought to be seen on two levels – first as a movie and second as an indictment of the state for failing to deliver the most basic needs of its citizens.

Salaam Bombay, the Movie

Although not as visually compelling as Slumdog Millionaire, Salaam Bombay (1988) does its job more than adequately and is one of the few must-watch movies coming out of India.

Directed by Mira Nair when she was 29, Salaam Bombay was supposedly filmed entirely on the streets of Bombay including in the red-light area of Kamatipura – 52 locations in 52 days, according to the extra features on the DVD – and with a cast comprised mostly of street children, who underwent training for a short duration.

Salaam Bombay was Mira’s first feature film but you couldn’t tell seeing the fine end-result.

Although often billed as a movie on the street children of Bombay (now Mumbai), Salaam Bombay for the most part focuses on one 11-year-old street child named Krishna a.k.a chaipau (the urchin who gets tea and if there were any justice in the world chaipau would be the destiny of Abhishek ‘Drona’ Bachchan given his non-existent acting capabilities).

Played with mucho elan by Shafiq Syed, Krishna lands up in Bombay after the circus he works in folds its tent and leaves him in the lurch one fine morning when he’s run off on an errand to get Ganesh-brand Paan Masala for his boss.

Krishna’s misery is no different from that of hundreds of thousands of kids who arrive in Bombay in similar straitened circumstances. Only the names vary.

In Bombay, Krishna lands a job as a Chaipau taking tea to the neighborhood dwellers, a motley crowd  of whores, pimps, drug addicts and other urchins like himself.

As Krishna toils on in the big city, he has only one goal – to save up Rs 500 so that he can go home to his mother with the money (to compensate for setting fire to his elder brother’s motor bike in a moment of rage).

Besides Chaipau, the other memorable characters we encounter in Salaam Bombay are the pimp Baba (Nana Patekar), his wife and hooker Rekha (Anita Kanwar), their little girl Manju (Hansa Vithal), the drug addict Chillum (Raghubir Yadav), the madam (Shaukat Azmi) and the young Sola-Saal girl sold into prostitution (Chanda Sharma).

Each one of these actors has played his/her role with great distinction.

Little Hansa Vithal, with her expressive eyes and charming smile, is a delight to watch.

In our view, Salaam Bombay has two weaknesses – it underplays the hard-life of the homeless street kids and at times has the look and feel of a documentary more than a feature film.

By the way, fans of Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan will be delighted to see him play a small role as a scribe in Salaam Bombay (Irfan played a key role in Mira Nair’s later movie The Namesake).

Harsh Indictment

Indians often take immense pride in labeling Pakistan a failed state because of the endemic violence and the bountiful supply of religious nutcases there.

But India is no less a failed state given its callous and predatory treatment of its poor and helpless.

God knows how many tens of millions (including children) have perished in post-Independence India because they could not afford a few morsels of food, basic healthcare, warm clothing or minimum shelter to protect them from the fury of the elements.

Although Salaam Bombay was made over two decades ago, we doubt much has changed for the poor urchins in India’s mega-cities like Bombay, Delhi, Chennai or for that matter in the smaller towns in the hinterlands.

In the 24-hour restaurant outside Trichy bus-stand and in the small ice cream parlor outside the Kalina campus of Mumbai University and in the Barakhamba hostel in New Delhi and in the Muslim tea shops near K.R.Market in Bangalore, we’ve been served food and beverages by kids no more than 10-years-old. Guess what, these kids are the lucky ones compared to the rag pickers and others working in more hazardous occupations.

When the history of modern India is written, 1947 will be marked as the year when we exchanged one set of oppressive external rulers for another bunch of oppressive indigenous rulers.

Thanks to Salaam Bombay, future historians will be armed with compelling evidence of the unending nightmare for the many millions.

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5 Responses to "Salaam Bombay – An Indian Tragedy"

  1. satya   February 4, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    I heard that “Chaipau” shafiq syed now works as a mechanic in a garage in bangalore. It is a small garage in ‘Lalbagh’ area near MTR hotel.

    I wonder what happened to other street childrens in the movie. Hope they are doing good. Responds:

    1. Yes, Mira mentions in the Special/Extra Features on the DVD that chaipau Shafiq Syed is now working at a Bangalore-based auto-shop.

    2. You write: It is a small garage in ‘Lalbagh’ area near MTR hotel

    We did not know that.

    Have you had Masala Dosa at MTR? People say it’s very good. Many summers ago, we went there with some of our Mallu friends…unfortunately they were not serving Dosa that day…we had to be content with Kharabath (upma) & other stuff. Remember waiting outside for 20-30 minutes.

  2. crsathish   February 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    has somebody eaten MTR mega meals ? it starts with freshly made ‘badam alwa’ on bananaleaf and they have more than 25 items…u can’t finish anything. i guess it was rs90 n 2005 Responds:

    Alas, we have not.

    Salivating at the prospect. Water all over our keyboard.

  3. Harry Butt   February 4, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    crsathish: u can’t finish anything
    I think iam ready for the challenge however much they give.. I think many of us can.
    In my 20s i wouldn’t even have hesitated.. now the metabolism has gone down with my damned age.

  4. elnino.aurora   February 4, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    A different perspective of the same Slumdog.

    I wonder whats wrong with the reviewer., it wasn’t such a bad movie., neither was it toooo good. It was just, kaafi. As they say in tamil – “gana kacchidama padam eduthurkan”. Responds:

    We think the column is ‘Unentertaining, Laughable and Annoying’.

  5. sumeshy   February 5, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    SI – have you seen Mithya Responds:

    No, we’ll watch it next week (after The Usual Suspects).

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