Salaam Bombay is a film by Mira Nair that was made in 1988. The movie presents a dire and pessimistic story of a young boy and his experiences in a big city of Bombay where he struggles to survive and make money. In the film, the director intended to demonstrate the underbelly of a large urban center inhabited by and unfriendly to the multiple marginalized population groups forming a diverse environment where every individual is occupied with a single goal – survival in the harsh conditions.
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The reviewers from New York Times referred to this movie as a film about hopelessness (Canby). However, Salaam Bombay presents a rather complex story with multiple layers and many diverse characters. Consequently, the story also incorporates a variety of themes and ideas that are interesting to explore in terms of the functioning of the society, the role of the city in marginalization and poverty, and human interactions in the harsh and merciless conditions.
Some of the major themes in Salaam Bombay are the desperation to survive at all costs, the meaning of money and material goods, family relations and friendships, adaptation to harsh environments, and childhood and adulthood perceptions.
At the very beginning of the story in Salaam Bombay, the main character, Krishna is kicked out of home by his mother who demands that the boy earns 500 rupees in order to repay for his brother’s bicycle that he had set on fire and destroyed. Krishna is a young preadolescent boy; having failed to find employment in a traveling circus, he goes to the closest large city – Bombay, looking for ways to make money (Nair). In the large urban center, the little boy is immediately sucked into the merciless underbelly where he has to survive alongside crowds of other homeless street children. Krishna encounters a number of characters, whose lives are far from perfect and tries to save money in the harsh environment of the city.
In this film, the director succeeded at portraying what can be referred to as the “other world” – a set of problems and scenarios that affect a very large number of people but are rarely discussed (Virdi 29). The director shows Bombay’s poorest people and neighborhoods, drawing the audience’s attention to the flaws of the city. Working as a tea server, Krishna encounters prostitutes, human traffickers, drug addicts, drug dealers, thieves, and con artists. Growing up surrounded by all kinds of hardships and dangers, street children have to adapt and adjust to the dire realities and learn to lie, trick, steal, scam, be extremely flexible, cynical, and fearless.
Dayal referred to the film as “docudrama” – a unique work of art that presents realistic and dramatic events and scenarios in order make the viewers aware of the depicted problems (16). In fact, knowing that the film was made in Hindi, it is possible to suppose that its intended audience was the Indian upper class and elite who needed to be informed about the parts of the city and country they never visited.
In Salaam Bombay, the major characters are children and adolescents who are severely affected by the surrounding conditions. The cynical, cunning, and resilient children of poor districts of Bombay are shown to the audience from upper classes as a juxtaposition to their traditional notion of what children and childhood are (Van Lill 16-20). To be more precise, the conventional image of a child dominant among upper-class groups depicts an innocent, helpless, and naïve creature who is always in need of love, care, and guidance provided by parents.
People have to learn some harsh lessons during their lifetime. For instance, the story of Sola Saal, a young girl sold to a brothel, portrays a character that does not fight back against her harsh environment and gives in to the rules of the place that uses her. Krishna also learns not to trust anybody numerous times, as his money gets stolen again and again not only by thieves or criminals but also by the people that he chooses to trust.
In the environment of the marginalized areas, Krishna still manages to form friendship and attachments that are quickly dissolved in the flowing and unstable conditions that characterize this part of the city and the society inhabiting it. In the poor districts of Bombay, friendships do not last for long because of money, and people learn to move on very fast and never develop close relationships. The story teaches that everything deemed important can become disposable – income, belongings, jobs, social status, friends, relationships, and people, in general.
The city itself is portrayed not as a vibrant and beautiful place to live. Here, Bombay is a center for drug sellers and buyers, a place where youth steals to survive. The view of Bombay is shot to depict this concept as the director does not shy away from capturing the dirty streets of the town. The beautiful architecture of the city is contrasted with the lives of its characters and the surroundings in which they have to exist.
The bright interiors of the brothel, for example, look lavish, while the streets where Chillum searches for money to buy drugs are full of dull colors. Nair portrays a city of contradictions, where the rich live in color, and the poor live in the shades of gray. Thus, as one scene replaces another, the audience is exposed to these differences in the city’s life. The carnival at the end of the film is incredibly colorful with red and blue being the primary tones of each frame. However, the film ends with the protagonist sitting near a gray building which shows that his life is not connected with the brightness of Bombay.
In conclusion, it is important to note that the scenarios and stories depicted by Mira Nair in Salaam Bombay are not the unique characteristics of Indian culture and cities but are present all around the world (Epstein 1-3). Large cities and rural areas of every country have marginalized districts populated by groups depowered by poverty and discrimination. These groups have little to no social protection and support and are forced to suffer in dangerous conditions and adapt to merciless environments where the only goal is to survive.
The city itself is filmed from different angles in order to show the differences between the lives of the poor and the rich. Its brightly colored rooms and buildings are put against the gray streets filled with dirt and garbage. The story presented in Salaam Bombay does not have a happy ending; instead, it places the characters on just another stage of struggles showing that poor people are most often powerless in their attempts to break out of the cursed cycle of their misfortunes.
Canby, Vincent. “Film Festival; In a City Where Life Is Just Barely Possible.” The New York Times. 1988. Web.
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Dayal, Samir. “The Subaltern Does Not Speak: Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! as a Postcolonial Text.” Genders, no. 14, 1992, pp. 16-32.
Epstein, Irving. “Street Children in Film.” IWU, n.d. Web.
Nair, Mira, director. Salaam Bombay! Cinecom Pictures, 1988.
Van Lill, Hilda. Exploring Issues of Identity and Belonging in the Films of Mira Nair: Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding. Thesis. University of Stellenbosch, 2010. SUN, 2010.
Virdi, Jyoyika. “Salaam Bombay! (Mis)representing Child Labor.” Jump Cut, no. 37, 1992, pp. 29-36.