The production of Salaam Bombay! is almost as absorbing as the film itself. The filmmakers put together the stories through direct interactions with the lived experiences of children from marginalised backgrounds. This resulted in a narrative that is a mash-up of various kinds of lives. The movie addresses themes like teenage prostitution, children who have never known the tenderness of a parent and how they rely on the leftovers of a wedding reception for subsistence.
Director/writer Mira Nair and screen writer Sooni Taraporewala made a film that mirrors the marginalised experiences of a few characters in Bombay, through an observer’s lens, drawing from the ones who have lived them. Through this approach, Salaam Bombay! released in 1988 not only documents the third-world in the late 80s, but also critiques the othering that prevails to date.
Pit of lost identities
Out of the several intertwined stories, the story of Krishna is central and draws a smooth splice for other characters. The film reveals Krishna’s nowhereness at the very beginning. Having gone to get paan masala for his circus boss, he is left behind in a strange town.
He then boards a train and buys a ticket from a person who is nearly hidden from view, intending to travel to the farthest destination his money will allow him to. An almost imperceptible man, so to speak, forges fate for Krishna’s flesh and identity in existence to go missing. His life gets consumed by transient occurrences as soon as he arrives at Kamathipura in Bombay.
Krishna is now called Chaipau as he delivers tea, bread, and biscuits to a brothel. His friends are also ascribed with pseudonyms, like Keeda and Chillum. The teen prostitute, whom Chaipau is enamoured by is called Solah Saal. All of these names are tethered to be redundant and replaceable as they are manipulated to pale into insignificance in the narrative of Salaam Bombay!
What happens when circumstances warp our identities? Don’t we become enslaved within its threshold? While reading John Muir (Mercy in her eyes: the films of Mira Nair), I learned that Nair had witnessed a boy in a room full of girls as she worked on another film. She wondered why he was there, she never saw him again.
This boy inspired Chaipau’s characterisation. It was the very threshold of the hidden that watered the seed of the film. As identities distort in reality, the audience too finds credence of the characters’ submission to the Other.
When the drug pusher Chillum tragically dies, Chaipau and other street children beg money from Baba, played by Nana Patekar, a drug dealer. It is these kids who bring the corpse for his final rites. After his death, another unnamed young boy, as anticipated, takes his place as Baba’s drug urchin. He, too, is called Chillum.
The ‘invisible’ in Bombay
While Chillum was still alive, he showed Chaipau his secret drug stashing spot, a broken brick wall beneath a railway bridge accessible only by the netherworld. Any other possibility of a different future is visibly obscured because Chaipau’s savings are never seen in physicality as they are handled by the tea shop owner.
There is no proof of his savings, his profession is deemed unimportant; his real identity would stand as a mere inconvenience to his boss. When he wishes to have a letter written to his mother, the postman determines that his home address in Bijapur sounds non-existent and vague.
Much like their identities, Salaam Bombay! positions their aspects of reliance as also lost in a world of anaphora due to lack of social validation, starvation, and finances. The possibilities of a life of being more than street children condemn them to become someone else, thus cyclically exploitable by many around them.
The Other World as Gayatri Spivak correctly defines it, characterises the state of being of the marginalised. Children, orphaned or not, both face obstacles associated with prostitution and drugs. Manju is the daughter of Baba and his legitimate wife, who is a prostitute. Manju is constantly seen as an annoyance, a reminder of their hardships and burdens. She resorts to sleeping on the streets beside Chaipau after becoming tired of peering into her mother’s brothel work through a hazy glass window.
The merciless streets of Bombay not only juxtapose the characters portrayed into cohesive unrecognition, but also incorporate them into sentient desire, selfishness, and need for intoxication, all of which are impertinent for young children. This is a darker, more revealing mirror of the city’s sidelong yet negligent gaze that constantly ignores the despair that breeds on its streets.
The only time when they are seen in the city is at night, when the police are suspicious of them or when they roam around aimlessly recalling Chillum’s words – “the ghosts of dead street children loiter under bridges at night”, painting a picture of how the ghost of the Other haunts spaces of the marginalised, determining their fate through decades.
Bombay, therefore, stands essential in emoting as well as germinating the otherness of these children. The film’s wide-angle shots and crowded sequences create a rhetorical maze for the audience. We can find frictions in reality while looking for Chaipau in the moderately crowded streets of the 1980s.
The New York Times reviewed Salaam Bombay! after it premiered in Cannes in 1988, describing Bombay as “a city where life is just barely possible.” Irony reeks from this Western perspective— albeit Chaipau’s grim and longing realities only push him deeper into the metropolis’ oblivion, it is the promise of the Bombay Dream that drives him to see his dreams of stability be flushed in the very same streets.
How promises defy reality
The chaos weaved throughout the film is first sewed by Chaipau’s promise to his mother that he’d earn 500 rupees and only then would he consider coming back. Manju’s mother and Solah Saal are both deceived by Baba’s promises to give them a life beyond the brothel.
Albeit, his unnamed wife attempts to leave him. Solah Saal, the teen who was sold by her uncle becomes Baba’s scapegoat for his aimless life as a drug peddler. A means to shine his armour of deception.
In the end, Manju and Chaipau are picked up by the police and transferred into a shelter home for street children. Manju, who is visited by her parents, is promised of a better life. Her silence says more than a child’s disappointment. It shows a premature collapse of her innocence.
Chaipau, in trial with survival, manages to escape the home only to lose his own innocence in crime and tragedy. While the audience wishes this to be a half-built bildungsroman, we are reminded of his encounter with a drunk stranger who says- “One day, everything will be okay in our India.” The cost of this promise has been due on the cards ever since.
Prerna considers herself a dilettante in art and life. She spends her days reading Camus and Plath ironically in the hope to survive this flesh prison. She peruses and writes about gender and culture while films help her find frictions in reality. You may find her on Instagram
Featured Image Source: TCM