“A man who doesn’t smoke hash is like a man without balls.”
Mira Nair was an Indian director of cinema vérité documentaries who decided she wanted to film a drama of the streets of Bombay — one that would be distinct from the frequently exaggerated “Bollywood” films that served as commercial entertainment for the Indian mass market. Filming was conducted on location in Bombay using as background in most cases actual everyday events and real people plying their trade as prostitutes or whatever, instead of actors. The resulting film — Salaam Bombay! — won the Camera d’Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 1989. Nair has made other fine films since, including Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding, but the impact of Salaam Bombay! remains unsurpassed.
MGM has now released the film on DVD as a special edition in its line of World Films.
Chaipu is forced to leave his country home after he destroys a bike that his brother was working on. His mother will allow him to return only if he earns 500 rupees as compensation. Chaipu’s first job at a traveling circus disappears when the circus packs up and leaves the countryside one day while he is in town on an errand for the circus owner.
Chaipu decides to travel to the nearest big city — Bombay — in hopes of making the money he needs there. Once in the city, he becomes part of the city’s seedy underbelly — a street child forced to fend for himself amongst pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, and other homeless children. He soon develops street smarts that allow him to survive. A job delivering tea helps him to slowly accumulate the money he needs, but when he nears his goal, he loses his job. He hides his earnings only to have them stolen by a close friend. Forced to start over, like so many other children in Bombay, he turns to a life of crime.
This film packs a real wallop. The story, is of course, one that really draws you in, but the film’s major virtue is the portrait of a city and a desperate way of life that is almost unimaginable to people brought up in the pampered society of the west. One sees only a segment of Bombay life, but that segment seems so pervasive that one wonders how the city continues to function. The aura of poverty, corruption, and urban decay is overpowering. The life of the homeless Bombay child in such an environment seems like a hopeless existence with only surrender to drugs and ultimately death seeming to offer any release.
Director Mira Nair and cinematographer Sandi Sissel brilliantly capture the atmosphere with a film that offers an effective array of contrasts — the colourful outer look of a life whose internal value is devoid of any brightness, the bustling appearance of a busy neighbourhood whose busy-ness is only an illusion hiding the lack of any work of real consequence, and the optimism of youth in the face of the aura of cruelty and resignation that seems to characterize adult life. They convey a story of a character whose future seems hopeless, yet is so resourceful and even trusting that one hopes that he will be the exception and somehow manage to rise above the life he is forced to lead. He is increasingly held back by the obstacles placed in his path, yet his optimism (though shaken at times) makes us continue to believe in his ultimate triumph. As a result, the film’s ending leaves us equivocal — despair for the Bombay street children in general, but yet somehow hopeful for Chaipu’s particular situation.
Another of the film’s strengths is the collection of vivid characters presented. Aside from Chaipu (brilliantly portrayed by Shafiq Syed, who had no previous acting experience), there is the delightful Manju, the young daughter of a local prostitute named Rekha; Rekha herself, who hopes somehow for a normal family life with pimp Baba; the madame of the local brothel; “Sweet Sixteen” as Chaipu calls her — a young woman whose virginity the local madame hopes will bring a fine price from one of her clients; and Chillum, the old-beyond-his-years drug addict who befriends Chaipu. These people all feel real and it’s an important reason for why we care about this film’s story.
MGM’s efforts on its DVD release of Salaam Bombay! are excellent indeed. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very filmlike. Crisp, clear with no edge effects, it is characterized by deep blacks and generally bright colours. The source material is obviously in good shape for there is virtually no evidence of speckles or debris.
Two Dolby Digital Hindi sound tracks are provided — the original mono and a 5.1 surround remix. The mono track does a fine job of conveying the dialogue, sounds of the city, and the background music. The remix does sound noticeably different with an enhanced presence and some occasional separation effects. MGM is to be commended for this extra effort. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
The disc really shines in its supplementary material. Two audio commentaries are included. The first is by director Mira Nair. She provides a very enthusiastic and informative talk that is virtually continuous throughout the film. It’s obvious that the story and the actors in it remain close to her heart and she’s genuinely delighted to share her thoughts with us. The second commentary is by cinematographer Sandi Sissel. For those interested in the details of lighting and camera placement, this is also a very informative commentary if a little drier than the other. Sissel does not talk quite as continuously as Nair, but when she does address a particular scene, she generally goes into considerable detail. Six short featurettes, each about 10 minutes long, provide interesting insight into what the past 15 years have brought for different members of the cast and crew. All of the highlighted individuals are quite forthright in their comments and the changes in their lives are sometimes surprising to hear about. A photo gallery, the film’s original theatrical trailer, and trailers for two other MGM films are also included.
Great film + great disc = strong recommendation!