Salaam Bombay! - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

India-France-Great Britain, 1988

Director: Mira Nair

Production: National Films Development Corporation (New Delhi)-Cadrage (Paris)-Channel 4 (London). A Mirabi Films production; in color; running time: 113 minutes; length: 10,271 feet. Released 1988. Filmed in Hindi, with English subtitles.

Executive producers: Anil Tejani, Michael Nozik, Gabriel Auer; producer: Mira Nair; co-producer: Mitch Epstein; screenplay: Sooni Taraporevala; Hindi dialogue: Hriday Lani; photography: Sandi Sissel; editor: Barry Alexander Brown; supervising sound editor: Margie Crimmins; production designer: Mitch Epstein; art directors: Nitish Roy, Nitin Desai; costume designers: Deepa Kakkar, Nilita Vachani, Dinaz Stafford; music: L. Subramaniam; children's workshop director: Barry John; film extract: Mr. India (1987).

Cast: Shafiq Syed ( Krishna, "Chaipau" ); Raghubir Yadav ( Chillum ); Aneeta Kanwar ( Rekha ); Nana Patekar ( Baba ); Hansa Vithal ( Manju ); Mohnaraj Babu ( Salim ); Chandrashekhar Naidu ( Chungal ); Chanda Sharma ( Solasaal, "Sweet Sixteen" ); Shaukat Kaifi ( Madame ); Sarfuddin Quarrassi ( Koyla ); Raju Barnad ( Keera ); Dinshaw Daji ( Parsi Bawaji ); Alfred Anthony ( Lalua Chor ); Ramesh Deshavani ( Murtaza ); Anjan Srivastava ( Superintendent ); Irshad Hashmi ( Chacha ); Yunus Parvez ( Hashimbhai ); Ameer Bhai ( Ravi, Rekha's Rich Cousin ); Sulbha Deshpande ( Hemlata Joshi ); Mohan Tanturu ( Chillum II ); Amrit Patel ( Circus Boss ); Murari Sharma ( Ticket Seller ); Ram Moorti ( Mad Man ); Kishan Thapa ( Nepali Middleman ); Haneef Zahoor ( Bouncer ); Ramesh Rai ( Barber ); Shaukut H. Inamdar ( Crawford Market Shopkeeper ); Irfan Khan ( Scribe ); Neil Gettinger ( American Big Dog ); Double Battery Stafford ( Sexy Woman in Movie Theatre ); Rana Singh ( Sleazy Man in Movie Theatre ); Ali Bhai ( Butcher at Crawford Market ); Jayant Joshi ( Tailor ); Prashant Jaiswal ( Crooner at Wedding ); Joyce Barneto ( Bride ); Hassan Kutty ( Bridegroom ).



Variety (New York), 8 June 1988.

Nair, Mira, in Première (Paris), August 1988.

Revue du Cinéma (Paris), September 1988.

Dieckmann, Katherine, in Village Voice (New York), 11 October 1988.

Nair, Mira, in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1988.

Malcolm, Derek, "Street Credibility," in Guardian (London), 20 January 1989.

Interview with Mira Nair, in City Limits (London), 26 January 1989.

Parmar, Prathiba, "Mira Nair: Filmmaking in the Streets of Bombay," in Spare Rib (London), February 1989.

Pym, John, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1989.

Moore, Suzanne, in New Statesman and Society (London), 3 February 1989.

Ehrlich, L. C., "The Name of the Child: Cinema as Social Critique," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), no. 2, 1990.

Arora, P., and K. Irving, "Culturally Specific Texts, Culturally Bound Audiences: Ethnography in the Place of its Reception," in Journal of Film and Video (Los Angeles), no. 1–2, 1991.

Orenstein, Peggy, "Salaam America!: An Interview with Director Mira Nair," in Mother Jones , vol. 17, no. 1, January-February 1992.

Simpson, Janice C., "Focusing on the Margins," in Time , vol. 139, no. 9, 2 March 1992.

Virdi, J., "(Mis)representing Child Labor," in Jump Cut (Berkeley), July 1992.

Cinema in India , vol. 4, no. 1, 1993.

"The 'Tough' Sister," in UNESCO Courier , November 1998.

* * *

It is difficult to distinguish Mira Nair's film about Bombay's street children, Salaam Bombay! , from its existence as a media event. In India, radio shows, newspaper advertising, and Salaam Bombay! tshirts have been harnessed to "sell" the film in ways similar to the marketing of the usual western film industry product. This might account for the rather cool response of domestic reviewers; in addition, the expatriate status of the director and even certain inflections of the narrative have been cited as indices of the film's tainted, inauthentic "foreignness."

Nair's objective is evidently to promote the film, and she is prepared to use whatever means are at hand. However, this unabashed approach to the promotion of what would ordinarily rank as a social problem film in the tradition of India's state-supported "middle" cinema does present problems.

To redress this uncertainty about the zone between strategy and message, it is important to acknowledge that Salaam Bombay! does exist at the level of a reforming social project. The seriousness of the filmmakers' engagement with their subject has been fully indicated. Nair and her colleagues undertook detailed research into the lives of the street children. They set up a Salaam Bombay! trust for them and a school for their education. Concern for the children has extended beyond the film in the monitoring of each child's development and the attempt to ensure that the children are given the opportunity of improving their situation.

There is, however, a complex relationship between this activity— one predicated on knowledge, commitment, and thereby trust—and the re-ordering of the performative and existential attributes of the film's subject. Nair has remarked that it was observing the facility of the street children performing for their living that set her thinking about the film. Workshops were used to channel the children's skills into realist conventions of acting; their urge to perform in terms of the Hindi popular cinema's excesses of gesture and "theatrically" articulated dialogue was discouraged. The film allows such "artificiality" only in strictly regulated contexts, notably those used to dramatize the humiliation of the individual by the group and the delineation of a kind of daydream make-believe. Otherwise there is an underplaying of performance in the representation of the individual, a stress on the imperative of "capturing" intimate psychological states rather than essaying broad melodramatic flourishes. This re-education of the children's performative skills extended to the way in which even camera performance was registered; Nair has noted that lead child actor Shafiq Syed reprimanded another actor for disturbing spatial continuity between shots.

Salaam Bombay!
Salaam Bombay!

How relevant is the question of "true" representation to the attributes of the street children? Which was the "normal" mode of relating to their world—the melodramatic one which they first presented, or the realist one into which they were educated? What is interesting is the way in which the film re-orders the children's perception of the way they should relate to the world. Nair's ability to bring this about is probably related to earlier documentary work in which she drew a responsive interaction from the people she was dealing with. She has used interview and cinéma vérité techniques (So Far from India , 1982, India Cabaret , 1985), but in ways which suggest a complicity of the subjects in the construction of their image. In Salaam Bombay! it is the induction of the cinéma vérité subject into an active fictionalization of his/her experience which leads not only to representation but, in a sense, reconstitution.

None of this is intended to suggest that the film is "inauthentic"; realist narration is certainly not an alien phenomenon in India, though it may be a minority one. Further, the rapport Nair and her crew struck up not only with individuals but with crowds is indicated by the vivid portrait the film presents of Bombay; in this context it may be placed alongside such documentary essays on the city as Bombay, Our City (Anand Patwardhan, 1985), about the struggle of street dwellers to protect their habitation.

As for the film's "foreignness," one may speculate that it is precisely the multiplicity of cultural positions that the director occupies that enables her to regard her characters with a peculiar, resonating effect. On the one hand the film draws upon the need of the children to find some kind of stability and affection. On the other, it shows this drive as frustrated and leading to violence. The duality here re-enacts the recurrent, indeed obsessive concerns of the Hindi commercial cinema of the 1970s, though on very different representational terms. It also, interestingly, has another possible point of reference. The leading child character is obsessed with a teenage girl who is being inducted into prostitution by a pimp. The relationship between the girl and the man is ambiguous. The analogy with Scorsese's Taxi Driver is too striking to be missed. Perhaps the relationship lies within certain modern male obsessions and anxieties. Whatever the reason, it is likely that only an Indian living in New York could have drawn out these subterranean links between American modernism and Hindi "kitsch."

—Ravi Vasudevan

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