Coming of Age in Bombay

Salaam Bombay

Written by Sooni Taraporevala and Mira Nair

Directed by Mira Nair

At the USA Harvard Square

THE road from Bombay's airport to the center of town extended for miles and miles through slums that would be unimaginable in the United States. Clutter was everywhere, the clutter of debris and people, an oppressive mass of oppressed people. But the taxi ignored the swarming of the bicycles and pedestrains, sped by the omnipresent shanties and hovels and zoomed to more palatable places.


That was my first impression of the Bombay that Mira Nair decided to chronicle in Salaam Bombay.

I was headed for a fancy hotel, a vestige of the Raj. And I would largely miss this side of the Indian city. Like most tourists, I would see the tourist sites--the great caves at Elephanta, the Victorian railway station, Malabar Hills. Unavoidable as poverty and suffering are in India, I also did not seek them out.

But Nair did. She and her film crew shot Bombay on location, searching for--and probably exaggerating--the bustling, seedy world. Her film is a somber tale, not a documentary, but the sort of muckraking that appeals to anyone with a "social conscience." It's the next best thing to being there--only better, because the audience does not have to deal with the consequences.

The film, made for Western audiences and in a Western style, may be in Hindi (with subtitles), but it is not intended for those familiar with the scene it describes. And while the rag picker chosen to play the main character gives an outstanding and natural performance, one nonetheless suspects the choice was made for reasons of pathos, not talent.

LUCIOUS photgraphy, outstanding acting and a story that is touching, if overdone, save Bombay from the fate of most of its genre. Instead of being sappy, the film exudes a combination of sadness and joy. Bombay adeptly combines the kind of lost youth that Francois Truffaut immortalized in The 400 Blows and Small Change with a search for identity like the one Rudyard Kipling chronicled in the novel Kim.

Sahfiq Sayed stars as Krishna, a little boy banned from his home for lighting fire to a bicycle belonging to one of his brother's customers. He can go back, he tells his friends, as soon as he raises 500 rupees to pay for the misdeed. Then, he believes, he will once again have a home in his sweet little village. Krishna finds employment as a chaipau, or tea boy, running around to the prostitues and barbershops delivering the muddy liquid. And he hopes he can earn the 500 rupees he thinks will bring him home.

But things do not work out the way he likes. Like Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, Krishna's romps about the city end in trouble, as well as glee.

At a local whorehouse, the 10-year-old meets Sweet Sixteen, a beautiful young girl sold into prostitution. She resists the efforts of the Madame to prepare her for the first man--virgins bring a good price--and Krishna helps her set her room on fire to distract the household while she escapes. The ploy fails, resulting in Krishna's banishment from the whorehouse.

Chandra Sharma plays Sweet Sixteen with feeling. Throughout the film, her face is the portrait of wanness and innocence. But in the end, Sweet Sixteen is broken. Drug dealer and pimp Baba (Nana Patekar) beguiles her into a realization of sexuality, though he treats the process as unemotionally as if her were training colts. But what can you expect from a man who decides to whip his pusher in front of a Western journalist who has been interviewing him? Patekar's Baba is fierce and unpleasant, cold and calculating in a way that sends proverbial tingles over the spine. And he will cause some trouble for the little hero.

THE same drug pusher whom Baba beats is, in fact, a good friend of Krishna's. Raghubir Yadav plays Chillum, the strung-out ganja addict and pusher, with frenzied exuberance, red-eyed and real. When the drug addict is given the boot by Baba, Krishna helps him, unwittingly providing the money for the fix that kills his friend.

It's a touching story, but one could wish Director Nair had skipped some of the melodramatic touches. Sweet Sixteen's deflowering, for example, takes place during the festival of Holi, a spring rite in which red dye symbolic of the menstrual flow adorns the particpants. Under the auspices of a float of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, whose long trunk is considered phallic, Sweet Sixteen is pushed into a taxi to take her to her first sexual encounter.

The sequence underlines the problem with Salaam--there is too much symbolism and melodrama, too many archetypes, too many plot twists. But the acting and photography overcome this flaw, making Salaam Bombay into one of the best films to be released this year. Once again, the judges at Cannes have shown that they know how to pick them.