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Salaam Bombay! review – still fiercely unsentimental and throbbing with energy

Posted on Jun 17, 2021

M ira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! from 1988 was developed through journalistic research into the street children of Mumbai with her screenwriting partner Sooni Taraporevala; now it is re-released and what strikes you is not simply its energy and vitality and its Dickensian storytelling appetite, but its fierce unsentimentality. This is a movie that withholds the resolution for which the audience might find itself longing, showing only how street children cannot imagine their own future as street adults, seeing only imprisonment or death. I found myself contrasting Garth Davis’s recent film Lion from 2017, about the true story of a street kid who fell asleep on a train and finds himself transported thousands of miles away to Kolkata without any means of getting back or explaining to the uncaring officialdom what has happened. That movie was able to offer us a happy ending. Salaam Bombay! can’t and won’t.

The beginning is not so very different. Krishna, later to be nicknamed Chaipau (played by non-professional Shafiq Syed) has been working in a circus to pay off a family debt; when the cruel owner sends him to buy three cans of food, poor Krishna returns to finds the circus gone: just a bare patch of land where the big tent was. It’s a stunningly bleak image which, in its way, governs Chaipau’s worldview for the rest of the film. With what little money he has, he buys a train ticket to Bombay (Mumbai), where his three cans are of course immediately stolen.

He gets a job selling tea in the red light district, where he befriends Manju (Hansa Vithal), the daughter of prostitute Rekha (Anita Kanwar) and her pimp Baba (Nana Patekar), who employs another, older street kid Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav), to sell drugs – to which he is himself hopelessly addicted. Chaipau is to fall gallantly and platonically in love with another prostitute, nicknamed Sweet Sixteen (Chandra Sharma). A young Irrfan Khan has a cameo as a letter writer. Inevitably, both Chaipau and Manju find themselves institutionalised: respectively in a boys’ juvenile hall and a girls’ detention centre, where Rekha and Baba are brusquely told that their daughter will be taken away from them. And of course the state, which had seemed utterly absent from the first half of the film, now appears in its most authoritarian form: police, jailers and child services.

And what is happening in Chaipau’s home village? That supposed paradise, for which Chaipau is trying to save up money for a ticket home, is utterly absent. It was his family’s dour attitude to money that got him into this mess in the first place. Mumbai is the only universe, and for all its immensity and crowds, it is a tiny and lonely place that gets tinier and lonelier all the time. Yet this doesn’t stop the pulse of energy throbbing out of the screen.

Salaam Bombay! is released on 21 June on digital platforms.