Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On the streets and in the workshops - Salaam Bombay!, 25 years later

[Salaam Bombay! is being rereleased by PVR Director’s Rare on the 22nd, in a fine restored print. I strongly recommend watching it on the big screen. Did this piece for Tehelka]

“I believe I may have been put on this earth to tell stories of living between worlds,” writes Mira Nair in her introduction to the soon-to-be-published book The Reluctant Fundamentalist: From Book to Film. It’s a theme that runs through her wide-ranging movie career, and it takes on a very large scale in her adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel; The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about nothing less than the clash of civilisations, about the East-West conflict that hangs over the planet. But the canvas was smaller, more intimate – and no less powerful for it – in Nair’s first feature film Salaam Bombay!, which is being released this week in a re-mastered print to mark its 25th anniversary.

That movie’s version of “between worlds” is summed up in a quiet scene where the 12-year-old protagonist Krishna/Chaipau and his older, more experienced junkie friend Chillum sit talking together in a graveyard. (Coming as it does in a frequently Dickensian film, the scene might make you imagine a more genial version of Magwitch sharing a peace-pipe with a more confused version of Pip.) Living in the big city, they yearn for the pastoral life, for the cool air of the “muluk” that they left behind. Chaipau has at least a theoretical chance of returning to that world – the film centres on his efforts to earn the 500 rupees that will allow him to do this – but for Chillum, we will soon see, it is already too late.

A quarter-century after it was made, there are many ways to take stock of Nair’s extraordinary film. There is, of course, the saphead position – having little to do with meaningful criticism – that goes roughly like this: any depiction of our poor is inherently demeaning, or amounts to exoticising poverty for a western audience***. Salaam Bombay! was, to an extent, insulated from such charges because it had the stamp of government approval, being co-produced by the NFDC. But watch it and there is no doubting the seriousness of its intentions and the quality of its execution. Two decades before The White Tiger won the Man Booker and Slumdog Millionnaire got its grubby hands on all those Oscars, Nair’s film depicted the lives of Bombay’s street children with a pragmatic refusal to be either maudlin or voyeuristic. After all, one of her reference points was Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, a film that, as Andre Bazin put it, “did not refer to moral categories” or sentimentalise the poor.

Just as remarkable is Salaam Bombay!’s nearly seamless mixing of two disparate cinematic modes: this is a fiction narrative with scripted characters, but it also has elements of the Cinema Vérité in which Nair was trained in the US, including lengthy held shots where the camera is doing little more than observing life unfolding at its own pace. It was shot - on an unprecedented scale - on Bombay’s streets, in real train stations and real brothels, and hidden cameras were used for some scenes. The adult roles were played by professional actors such as Anita Kanwar, Nana Patekar and Raghuvir Yadav (magnificent as the snivelling, giggling Chillum, driven to animal-like whines and bursts of impotent rage as addiction corrodes him), but working alongside them were a group of wonderful non-professional child performers, and there is no telling the difference. Workshops were conducted to siphon out the children’s preconceived ideas of what “movie acting” should be; in other words, to get these real-life street kids to play versions of themselves, Nair had to make them unlearn the larger-than-life mannerisms they knew from watching commercial Hindi cinema. (This is a telling comment on the relationship between a society and its popular culture, also reflected in scenes like the one where a boy sings "Hawa Hawaii" as he pees on the tracks, or in the raunchy use of the lyrics "Chal chal dhakha maar" from the title track of Haathi Mere Saathi.) The final film is a testament to the effectiveness of those workshops, as well as a reminder that assiduous preparation can pave the way for on-set improvisation and the illusion of spontaneity – something that would also be seen in Nair’s Monsoon Wedding years later.

Handled with less care, some of Salaam Bombay!’s characters could have been hollow symbols (consider “Solah Saal”, the 16-year-old virgin from Nepal whose “seal” is valued at Rs 10,000 and who becomes the mute, uncomprehending catalyst for the viewer's understanding of the people around her) but Nair’s direction and Sooni Taraporevala's writing achieve a synthesis between sympathy and detachment. Sandi Sissel's cinematography creates numerous elegant frames without over-prettifying. And then there is the way in which L Subramaniam's beautiful violin-led score - a masterstroke by Nair that might have seemed an eccentric or "Western" decision on paper - embellishes, as opposed to thickly underlines, the story's dramatic moments.

With the passage of time, we can see that Salaam Bombay! helped open doors for a newer, grittier brand of Bombay filmmaking, beginning with the 1990s work of Ram Gopal Varma. It also led to the creation of the Salaam Baalak Trust, which has provided financial and emotional support to thousands of street children over the years. And so it is fitting that Penguin India has reprinted Nair’s 1989 book about the film’s genesis and legacy, a singular account of “private madness”, as she called it then (and her new Foreword to which mulls the question "Can art change the world?"). But there is no substitute for watching the film itself, especially on the big screen and in the re-mastered print. This is “pure cinema” while also being quasi-documentary, and it is as fresh today as when it was made.

*** At Nair's Spring Fever session on Sunday, a member of the audience asked her that tired question "Why are filmmakers so obsessed with India’s poverty?" The man expressed his views genially and mentioned his admiration for Nair's work, but I was amused when he said that Monsoon Wedding was the only high-profile international film he could think of that presented a "positive" picture of India to the West. Now I absolutely love that film, but it's odd to think that a depiction of an upper-class family spending obscene quantities of money on an ostentatious wedding can be construed as an unqualifiedly positive representation of modern India, while a portrayal of street-children's lives should be seen as something to frown at.


  1. Lol..the reason for his admiration of Monsoon Wedding is funny.

    I guess, if you ask, lets say 10 people, what was Monsoon Wedding all about. They would casually say, "Yeah it was about rich Punjus in Delhi". I think there would be hardly any, who would say that child abuse was one of the important themes of the film. Interestingly, I read somewhere the interview of Monsoon Wedding's screen-writer, where she said it all started with an idea of a story about child abuse.

  2. Pessimist Fool: yes, but personally I think the film holds up pretty well even if you take out the child-abuse angle altogether. Its main strengths - as a brilliantly crafted film - lie elsewhere in my view. And though I get your point, I don't think it's inaccurate to say that it is about rich Punjus in Delhi.

  3. There are very few filmmakers who can speak as articulately and engagingly about their cinema as Mira Nair. One of the many pleasures of watching her movies is listening to the Director's Commentary feature.

    I remember watching Salaam Bombay! about ten years ago and being completely gobsmacked by it. As soon as the film ended, I replayed the DVD with Mira Nair's commentary and was enthralled a second time; apparently when filming *spoiler* Chillum's funeral procession on the street, bystanders thought it was the real thing and were paying respects to the departed!

    Such a terrific movie! I wish Criterion would release it on Blu-ray so a newer generation of viewers can appreciate its compassion and its genius.

  4. karrvakarela: I have heard some of that commentary track too. And yes, this would make a terrific double-bill Criterion with Monsoon Wedding: one great Delhi film (mainly about the upper classes) and one great Bombay film about the poor. Which reminds me I need to get my hands on the Criterion Monsoon Wedding package, which also has some of Nair's documentaries and short films as Extras.

  5. Jai, Yes Salaam Bombay is a good film, but a voice inside me says it got all those international awards purely by Westerners intentions to promote the poverty-struck, heartless/cruel image of Bombay / India.
    Like how it went for "White Tiger" and "Slumdog Millionaire". Both those works of art were in my opinion, different and fresh in their approach but still average.

  6. Unknown: I think it's more than just a good film (definitely better than Slumdog Millionaire). I also think it gets a little pointless and self-defeating to analyse why awards get given. Especially when we're talking about an award from one culture being given to a film/book from another culture. We in India are just as guilty of simplifying/pigeonholing other countries and cultures (or simplifying/pigeonholing those parts of India that we are less familiar with) - that's how the human mind works, it likes things in neatly labelled boxes.

    In any case, any narrative that you want to construct about awards can easily be turned on its head. Let's not forget that Lagaan was nominated for the Oscars too. And that Slumdog Millionaire, which won so many awards, had a much more sugar-coated, triumphal narrative than Salaam Bombay did.

  7. Its interesting how I have Mira Nair's interview on Hindu opened in another tab as I read this where she talks about how she had trouble finding distributors for this film .

    Have always liked her work and am looking forward to the Reluctant fundamentalist , esp because it is based on the novel I liked so much .

    IMHO , Salaam Bombay is a much better and much more honest "Bombay" movie (and I am glad you think the same) , unlike Slumdog which somehow never appealed to me. Salaam Bombay was so stark and those child actors , every single one of ,so heartbreakingly real .

    And a little trivia , I had read about Shafiq Sayed who play Chaipau , how he lives in Bangalore and works as a auto rickshaw driver a, while back . Well , he is still in Bangalore , it seems , but works on the sets of some TV serials there. Not sure what I am feeling about how his life turned out , considering all the hoopla on the Slumdog kids.

  8. ugh, I hated this movie. the scene where raghuvir yadav sings a funereal cod-Indian Pistol Packin' Mama was so annoyingly film school-y meta. the whole movie just really got on my nerves, and I hate sooni taraporewala's writing. good god, did namesake stink on account of a total absence of levity. as for le olde and tired discourse about the representational politics of Indian poverty, it's really not even worth discussing.

  9. Jai, long time reader, although first post. Absolutely love your blog, its a staple read of mine.

    Watched Salaam Bombay! twice on big screen after being titillated by this post, have to say .. was one of the best visual experience ever !

    Loved everything about it, and actually sad that I wont get to see it more ( just got back from the last show) ..

    Was wondering one thing, even though I was aware of the general content of the movie ( in terms of its portrayal of street life), I was so dazzled by its cinematography that I found myself somewhat detached by the content of the movie .. I was mesmerized by each and every single frame, and after stepping out of the theater, everything looked so fresh .. so new .. as if I was watching world with Mira Nair's eyes ..

    As an economist ( studying in JNU) .. one particular observation leaped out strongly: The first time we see Kirshna/Chaipau all neat, combed hair and dressed in when he is in correction facility. But its also the first time, we feel the sting of bleakness, despair like.. up until then there was atleast some hope .. but now even thats gone. This comes out even much strongly in the case of Manju, she also has neat hair, white shinning dress .. but .. devoid of any hope, she cant even speak ..

    Like they dont even own themselves now ...

  10. Vaibhav: thanks, and those are good points you make. I did feel like the photography came close to beautifying things at time (especially in the scenes set in Rekha's room, with the bright colours), but it didn't detach me from the content.

    And yes, the "corrected", sterilised versions of Krishna and Manju are quite frightening on various levels - it implies the loss of these characters' individuality and humanity (even if those qualities are tied up with a wretched life on the streets). And that's probably what you can expect when the government/state turns "mother" (to paraphrase what Rekha says late in the film).

  11. Jai, Thnx for reply.

    But no, I didnt find she 'beautified' things .. for me a lot of kick came out from things being depicted "as they are". Bushes just being green, sky just being blue.. etc etc. In graveyard scene, thing that the most struck me was the bushes were lush green ( I was living in Udaipur last year, and there I could just sit and state at the sky because, unlike Delhi, there sky was just blue, real blue, and at night there were actual stars visible, infinite of them).. similarly insides of Rekha's room are exactly as you'd expect of someones whos engaged in flesh trade in 80s.. and ofcourse a lot of it was immaculate camera work,

    Even apart from that, the visual awe was all throughout the movie, specially in street scenes, each and every frame was so full( and colorful too) that many times I found myself wowing over the background .. there was just too much going on there too ..

    But above all, performance of Shafiq should take the cake... the guy was beyond any imagination .. his eye gestures, his emotives,.. and his chemistry with Cheelum was supremely natural. Man, I am just raving too much for this one ..

    Thanx again, credits goes to you for putting it on my radar. I have always found your movie judgement completely objective,