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“Indian cinema can sometimes be lazily presented as a straight choice between Satyajit Ray and Bollywood,” writes Meenakshi Shedde, guest curator of the ‘India on Film’ celebration at the BFI Southbank in London (‘A world within: the other Indian cinema’, S&S, April). Indeed, many Western viewers – even those who have never seen a Bollywood movie – identify that industry’s trademark songs, glitz and happy endings with Indian film as a whole. This creates space for the odd independent film to break out of the country and confound expectations, as Mira Nair’s stunning first feature did in 1988.

Salaam Bombay! opens on scenes of a travelling circus packing up somewhere in rural India, set to the atmospheric sitar drone of L. Subramaniam’s main theme. Eleven-year-old Krishna (Shafiq Syed), the troupe’s dogsbody, is sent on an errand; when he returns, the circus is gone. He uses his last cash to buy a train ticket to the nearest city: Bombay. “Come back a film star!” the cashier quips sarcastically.

Bollywood figures loom large in Krishna’s Bombay – giant movie posters are one of the first things he encounters – but its background glamour only serves to underscore the harshness of the life he finds there. Nair’s film is closer in tone to Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist portrait of childhood poverty Shoeshine (1946) than the likes of Ramesh Sippy’s classic action-adventure Sholay (1975). It is the plight of the faceless poor that interests her. Krishna ekes out a living in the Kamathipura red-light district, alternating between menial jobs and petty crime in the hope of earning enough to return to his home village. He is sustained by the fragile friendships he forms with the pushers, hookers and hoodlums around him. Having explored this world in her early documentaries, Nair shoots in a robust vérité style; the child ‘actors’ are all real-life street kids. (Syed himself says he ran away from his native Bangalore to Bombay “just to see if what we saw in movies were right”.)

In this teeming demi-monde, people soon lose their names, and with it their individuality. After getting a job delivering tea, Krishna becomes ‘Chaipau’ (‘Tea boy’). He falls for a virgin called Sweet Sixteen, who has been sold as a valuable asset to a local brothel. The closest thing he has to a friend is an older junkie, nicknamed ‘Chillum’ after a pipe used to smoke drugs. These characters are never reduced to archetypes – the performances are too nuanced, the script (by long-time Nair collaborator Sooni Taraporevala) too sympathetic. Yet they come to embody inescapable truths of the Bombay slums, and a certain fatalism: as plot twists make clear, officialdom is against them, mainstream society all but closed to them. Salaam Bombay! is wise enough to recognise the exhilaration of Krishna’s total independence, while weighing it against the injustice of a system that eventually crushes anyone like him.

Salaam Bombay! (1988)

This ambivalence comes to a head in the single-shot closing scene. Krishna has just emerged from a manic street festival in honour of Ganesha, the god of good beginnings. He has already lost his job and savings, and in the crowd he has been separated from his one remaining companion. He sits down in a quiet side street, takes a spinning top from his pocket and idly winds a piece of string around it. As the camera slowly zooms in and Subramaniam’s drone returns, the boy begins to cry. For the first time since the circus abandoned him, he is utterly alone. He has come full circle.

The scene draws on many of the film’s strengths: the light-touch symbolism, Syed’s captivating expressions, Nair’s flair for communicating without words. Above all, it carries the narrative’s rich ambiguity through to the end. After a while, Krishna puts down his toy and stops crying, his sombre eyes lingering on something out of shot. Is he steeling himself for adult life on Bombay’s streets? Gathering his resolve to earn his money back? Or simply giving up? We don’t find out: the film cuts to a dedication to “the children on the streets of Bombay”, then the credits.

For a more hopeful conclusion, we can look to what happened next. Salaam Bombay! was well received, picking up an Oscar nomination and two prizes at Cannes. Nair used the proceeds to set up the Salaam Baalak Trust, a non-profit that supports street kids in India’s biggest cities. It claims to have helped more than 70,000 children, some of whom have trained as actors. Not exactly a Bollywood ending, perhaps, but certainly a rare and inspiring example of a film that refuses to stop at its final scene.

Further reading

A world beyond Bollywood: surveying the new Indian cinema

By Meenakshi Shedde

A world beyond Bollywood: surveying the new Indian cinema

The roots of neorealism

By Pasquale Iannone

The roots of neorealism

What is neorealism?

By kogonada

What is neorealism?

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