Krishna is a 10-year-old boy who sleeps in the rubble-strewn streets of Bombay, India. He makes a living carrying glasses of tea to the pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers of the red-light district. It is possible to see the movie Salaam Bombay! and conclude that 11-year-old actor Shafiq Syed gives an uncannily believable performance as Krishna, the film’s main character. Syed’s acting talent is real, but he has had a lifetime on the streets to prepare him for the part: when producer and director Mira Nair met him, he was an illiterate Bombay ragpicker. Nair, 31, said that she considered it essential to have street kids play all of the children’s parts in her drama. Explained Nair, who was bom in rural India but has lived in the United States for the past 12 years: “The combination of childhood and wisdom in their faces is very difficult to find in actors who don’t come from the streets.”
In addition to casting untrained children, Nair decided to film in the actual brothel district of Bombay. The result is a work of undeniable authenticity. The subtitled Hindilanguage movie won the Golden Camera Award for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was voted the most popular film at the Montreal Film Festival in August. New York City-based Nair made four docu-
mentaries—including India Cabaret, a study of Bombay striptease artists—before switching to features with Salaam Bombay! “I wanted to have more control telling the story,” she told Maclean’s. But, she added, “the gift of documentary for me is its ability to capture life’s inexplicability, contradictions and rawness—life’s edge. In Salaam Bombay! I wanted to keep that edge.”
From the outset, the project was an extraordinary fusion of drama and reality. Salaam Bombay! evolved out of an intensive theatre workshop in 1987 with 19 children, mainly runaways, living on the streets of Bombay.
Drawing on their discussions with the children, Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala fashioned the story line of the film. In addition to gaining the children’s trust, the film crew had to get access to one of Bombay’s brothels. Recalling her meeting with 16 madams, Nair said: “Being a woman helped establish a more personal connection. But, finally, you make a deal, money is exchanged, and life goes on.”
At the outset of the film, the boy Krishna is working in a circus after a dispute with his rural
family. One day, while he is on an errand, the circus pulls up stakes and vanishes. Taking a train to the nearest city, he plunges into the teeming, brightly hued squalor of Bombay and takes up a new existence as a chaipau—tea boy. Making his rounds, he meets Baba, a vicious pimp and drug dealer, Rekha, a prostitute, and Manju, their eight-yearold daughter. He also strikes up a friendship with Sweet Sixteen (Chanda Sharma), a young Nepali girl who has recently been sold into prostitution.
Khrishna and the other street children lack what Nair calls “the luxury of childhood” but they possess a resilient vitality. Watching a popular film in a movie house, they sing along boisterously with the female star, imitating her campy movements. Later, a small boy on a railway platform sings the same song while urinating calmly into the path of an oncoming train. Unlike most films about children, Salaam Bombay! is neither patronizing nor sentimental. Instead, it is a beautifully shot insider’s view of a world that has a shabby poetry all its own. Still, the film is curiously lacking in dramatic intensity: it has the slice-oflife quality of a documentary in place of a gripping narrative.
After the cameras stopped rolling, the filmmakers’ involvement with their young actors continued. Nair asked the children, each of whom received a salary, what they wanted to do next and promised to help make the wish come true. Five of them returned to live with their families, and part-time jobs and schooling were set up for others. Many of them had difficulty settling into a routine. Said Nair: “The independence of the street is incredibly addictive.” Of all the children, she added, the film’s star, Syed, had the hardest time adjusting. But now, he and two others are working part time as actors in New Delhi while also going to school.
The film-makers have also set up a trust fund to establish learning centres for street children in Bombay and New Delhi. Proceeds from gala screenings of the movie in the West and in India—where it will open in December—will be used to launch the project. Such programs are realistic attempts to deal with the 100 million street children around the world, mainly in poor countries. As Nair’s film shows, those young people are accustomed to self-sufficiency—and too proud for pity.
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