Thursday, January 10, 2013

Salaam Bombay!

Mira Nair directed one of my all- time favorite Indian films: Salaam Bombay! (1988) which is considered one of the top foreign films ever made.  Few Indian films reach western audiences the way Salaam Bombay! touched the hearts of many in a raw look into a small slice of life of a child played by Shafiq Syed in a city of millions.  There's so much to discuss on this genuine gem of a film centered on the unfortunate adventure of an 11-year-old boy named Krishna who ends up alone in the big city of Bombay now known as Mumbai.  Krishna lives with his mother and older brother whom constantly bullies him.  One day he gets very angry at his brother after being bullied and he sets fire on his brother's motorbike.  To punish him, his mother tells him he has to pay for the ruined motorbike and that he will have to work hard.  She takes him to a traveling circus and abandons him there telling him not to return home until he has earned 500 rupees or the equivalent of little over $7 dollars.  The boy eagerly begs for work at the circus and he's taken on.  As expected, the circus boss takes advantage of him and overworks him without pay.  One day the boss sends him to run an errand and when he returns, the traveling circus has packed up and left him behind with nowhere to go.  Alone and without the money to repay for the motorbike, he decides to take what little money he had and buys a ticket at the train station to travel to the nearest city, Bombay (Mumbai).  

Shafiq Syed in the role of Chaipau in
Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay!
Upon arrival, he's robbed of his meager possessions by other homeless kids.  He follows them into the dangerous red light district where he meets and befriends Chillum, a street-smart sixteen-year-old drug pusher and addict.  The streets in this old district are not only dangerous, they're dreadful and sad, where hundreds of children live and die on the streets, many at the hands of traffickers and abusers.  At this point, Chillum gives Krishna a new name, Chaipau.  Chaipau knows Chillum is not to be trusted but he has nobody else whom he can turn to and feels even a little bit safer in his company.  Soon Chillum helps Chaipau get a job as a runner (chaiwallah) selling tea (chai).  His job is to run up and down flights of stairs with trays of tea to a community in several buildings where he discovers a dark and savage underworld of drugs, prostitution, sweatshops, and poverty.  Chaipau sleeps anywhere he can in an abandoned building and he works hard saving everything he earns.  He hides all his money behind a brick where he thinks he can keep it safe.  He has only one goal in mind and that's to return home with the 500 rupees.  
Chaipau carries on for what seems like months with big dreams of earning enough money to return back home to his mother.  One day, Chillum convinces him to tell him where his secret hiding place is and that he will help him return home.  Chaipau, innocently believes him.  But Chillum betrays him and steals all the money leaving Chaipau with nothing and a heartbreaking feeling of hopelessness after working for such a long time.
As the narrative of the film continues, the audience develops a sense of pain along with the boy, yet the director's clever treatment of the film demonstrates how cruel a big city can be to a small boy.  He encounters countless abusive incidents from the tea (chai) vendor until one day a positive light sheds hope on him to cope with his loneliness and fear.  He meets a young girl of sixteen named Manju who lives with a Madam that runs a brothel.  Sadly, the Madam has plans of an age-old custom of selling the young girl's virginity to the highest bidder.  Chaipau wants to help Manju of her miserable and sad fate so he plans to help her run away.  It will be an extremely difficult escape so he pours gasoline in the room where Manju sleeps and sets the place on fire escaping out into the streets with Manju.   
Filmmaker Mira Nair
Mira Nair's gritty treatment of the film lends itself to the telling of the story in a docudrama style allowing for full bright colors photographing the sights and sounds in all of its naturalness.  The film is so real and raw, that it provokes many emotions in the viewer.   It offers a touch of fable much like beloved Charles Dickens' story Oliver Twist.  The director mixes realism, poverty and merciless satire as a way to describe the effects of harsh, brutal day to day worries of a small but highly intelligent boy.  Child labor exists in many parts of the world and India is not unique to these circumstances.  Chaipau endures a miserable existence and escapes into the streets carving out a chance for a better life along with other children in the streets of Bombay.  He is an innocent child trapped in a world where his only options seem to be working as a tea boy.  From this unpromising setting, however, a fairy tale also emerges. In the midst of corruption and degradation, the essentially innocent Chaipau remains pure-hearted; he steers away from evil when those around him give in to it, and in proper fairy-tale fashion, he eventually receives his reward.  On the way to this happy ending, Nair explores the kind of life an orphan, outcast boy could expect to lead in the largest industrialized city in India.  It is a film that raises concerns.  Is there hope for the children?  What will be their fate?  
Leticia Alaniz and Mira Nair
Salaam Bombay! is in Hindi and it is beautifully photographed by American cinematographer Sandi Sissel.  
A chai wallah (tea) runner in a crowded market in India.  
The small clay bowls are used to serve the tea.
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Rights Reserved 
The following is a poem paying tribute to Salaam Bombay! by: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
All day I carry glasses of tea
down streets full of holes or feet
waiting to trip me.  Above summer is singing
the feathers of black pigeons
that circle and circle. Gopi carries a knife
with a twisted snake handle.
Each time a glass breaks
Chacha cuts my pay. 

Dark windows.
Women with satin eyes calling me. The tea
thick and sweet in its rippling brown skin.
Downstairs pimps play cards
all day. I take a sip from each glass
when no one is watching.

Broken-horned cow, chewing garbage
in the alley where we sleep.
Rain soaks my yellow shirt, turns the tea to salt. 
The cinnamon smell
of women's brown bodies.
When you can't stand any more.
the pavement is soft enough.
I am hiding my money behind a loose brick
in the bridge-wall.
First thing to learn: melt into pavement
when you hear police vans.

Sometimes my skin
doesn't want
to hold in all these bones.
Chillum sells hashish
to tourists by India Gate.
It pulls you out of your body, flings you
into the sun. The night Gopi mugged the old man
he bought us all
parathas at Bansi's Corner Cafe. 

Footsteps follow me, a muffled cough.
My soles are turning to stone. I must
lie down. The night-dust is warm as Shiva's ashes. 
When I have five hundred rupees
I can go back
to my mother in Bijapur.
Till I fall asleep I watch
that fierce glistening,
the sky full of scars. 


  1. Replies
    1. Hi Norma, I'm glad you saw the film too! I hope you liked it as much as I did. It reminds me a lot of what many children in Latin America live too.