Mira Nair's first feature has far more in common with Italian neo-realism than traditional Bollywood fare, so Salaam Bombay! comes across like early Satiajit Ray in contemporary Mumbai shot in technicolor with high production values. What makes the film especially effective is the way Nair prepared for the film—befriending a group of Bombay street children to learn about their lives and fashioning a composite narrative to form the screenplay. She then worked with these children in workshop style (much like Fernando Meirelles in City of God) to prepare them to act naturally in front of the camera. The result is a very strong film that deservedly won the 1988 Audience Award at Cannes and was India's 1989 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.
Such a film requires a strong young actor to carry the narrative, and Nair found a charismatic winner to play earnest ten year old Krishna in Shafig Syed. Immersing himself thoroughly into his role, Syed pulls us emotionally into Bombay's chaotic life on the street. After being kicked out of his home to join the Apollo Circus, Krishna once again is abandoned when the circus takes off while he runs an errand for his boss, and he only has enough train fare to reach the nearest big city of Bombay. While the train station attendant jokes with him to "return as a movie star," Krishna immediately discovers that life on these foreign streets is dangerous and scary . . . and it's not long before he is robbed of his paltry possessions.
A tough little adaptable survivor, Krishna befriends the robbers and joins an ad hoc street family of peers that bed down near a train station that lies next to one of Bombay's notorious red-light districts. Krishna's fantasy is to save up 500 rupees so that he can return to his home even though he doesn't even know exactly where his village is or where it's located; thus, it becomes apparent that his destiny lies on Bombay's streets where thousands of anonymous kids struggle to eke out their daily existence. Extremely intelligent but unable to read or write, his future appears bleak, but he learns the unwritten rules of the streets and blends into his new environment. Now called Chaipau, he finds a job running tea for a man who runs a tea stall—which takes him through drug dealing and prostitution tenements, which he develops a crush on a poor 16 year old virgin that the house madam is saving for the highest bidder.
Complications naturally unfold. Chaipau befriends an older drug dealing addict, whose life really goes into the gutter when he pisses off his supplier. Although Chaipau attempts to help, his friend's eventual fate is sealed. Chaipau's naivity shows once again with his half baked plan to save the young virgin from her unhappy existence that results only in punishment and his banishment from serving tea on the premises. Another subplot involving the district's major drug dealer and his common law prostitute wife demonstrates the cyclic nature of the poverty stricken neighborhood. Nair also gives a glimpse of penal institutional life that shows an even more hopeless future than Bombay's chaotic street life. Thus, a plethora of horrors confronts our young hero, and Nair wisely leaves his story unresolved.
Among the strongest films coming from Bollywood, Salaam Bombay!'s character driven story mesmerizes by immersing us directly into the whore houses, sweatshops, and streets without Bollywood embellishment—no unnatural song and dance numbers and idealized romances. Tough and gritty, much of the location shot film serves as a visual tour of a world that most of us can hardly imagine. Having recently returned from visiting northern India, I can recognize the naturalness that Nair achieves in this remarkable film. It's an honest and haunting portrait that lingers long after viewing.