Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, to which she owes much of her fame, delivers all the punches it pulls unflinchingly, unapologetically and without making a big deal about it like it was a regular, matter-of-course film, which is far from what it is by miles altogether. Grounded in the harsh realities of the real world, the movie is about resilient aspirations amidst massive piles of shattered dreams and lost hopes.
Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a young boy of around 12 or 13, is called – rather yelled out for as – ‘Chaipau’ in a slimy red-light area of Falkland Road near Grant Road Railway Station in Bombay. Chaipau wants to go back to what he calls his ‘muluk’ (native place), and to that end he works at a tea-stall called Grant Road Tea Stall serving tea wherever required, including the brothels, and saves money with the owner of the tea shop, who keeps careful record of Chaipau’s earnings and expenditure, which is generally in broken glasses, spilt tea and tea and snacks served to friends and acquaintances, which Chaipau does not have many anyway. Chaipau is different from other children of his age in the area in only one major respect – he has a goal to achieve and is determined to do all it takes to make things work towards the end.
He doesn’t accept his condition partly because he was not born there, and had arrived from elsewhere only for the reason that it was the nearest big city from his home, and after the circus he had started working for after being expelled from his house had deserted him, he had no other option than to travel to the nearest big city, which happened to be Bombay, and try his luck at getting the princely sum of ` 500 to be entitled to knock at the door of his own house again. He had been thrown out of his house by his mother with the diktat that he could return home only if and when he had ` 500 to pay for the damage he had caused to the motorcycle of his elder brother’s customer, which Krishna (Chaipau) had set afire in frustration from the constant bullying by his abusive brother.
Baba (Nana Patekar) is a former pimp, now settled with a former prostitute by the name Rekha (Aneeta Kanwar) and their daughter, Manju. Baba is mostly into drugs now, and Chillum (pronounced ‘Chillim’) – played by Raghubir Yadav – is one of his principal drug runners, and is himself an addict. A young girl of around 16 enters the local brothel generally referred to as ‘Number 109’. They start calling her ‘Solah Saal’ after her estimated age. She doggedly refuses to give in to her fate. Chaipau manages to befriend her and also tries to help her escape the cage she had fallen into. The two try to run away, but are nabbed by one of the strongmen of the brothel owner, who asks Baba to cajole the girl into the profession. Baba, an expert hand at turning new girls into seasoned prostitutes, takes the assignment. But his ways are slightly different. He doesn’t use force; he uses dreams. And he hands ‘Solah Saal’ the dream of a life with him while somehow Krishna builds his own dream castle of romance with ‘Solah Saal’ creating an odd love triangle with Baba on the other side.
Krishna and Chillum are good friends, and Krishna tries to help Chillum as best as he could when the hard time befalls him after Chillum is kicked out by Baba for having cheated him of the drug money. Chillum, a street smart fellow, grows a little too smart and tries to outsmart Baba, which works only for some time, after which Baba finds out and then he doesn’t think twice before throwing him out, literally. Out of work, Chillum finds it difficult to manage money for his fix, and Krishna could help him only so much. Eventually, Chillum succumbs to his addiction, which leaves a large void in Krishna’s life. What is even more heartbreaking than Chillum’s death, as Krishna later finds out, is the fact that he died of the overdose of drugs he had bought by the money he had stolen from Krishna – the money Krishna had saved to go back home. With the savings gone, Krishna can’t go back to his muluk. And that’s hugely upsetting for the little boy. But he knows there isn’t much he can do about it except to start over.
The start over, however, doesn’t go too well, and on the very first day when Krishna is returning in the early hours of the morning after having worked at a wedding with his regular friends and Baba’s little daughter, Manju, who had also accompanied them to the wedding, they are rounded up by the police and sent to juvenile home. Considering her mother’s involvement in flesh trade, the authorities refuse to release Manju into Rekha’s care despite her desperate request to have her beloved daughter back. Krishna, on the other hand, has nobody to go to and is held up for that reason. After a month or two, he breaks out of the juvenile home and returns to his old place at the Falkland Road. But things have changed. Baba now has a new drug runner, the new ‘Chillim’. He goes to Solah Saal and asks her to run away with him, but she is now besotted with Baba and is foolishly dreaming of a future with him. Turns out that her virginity is sold to a man for a handsome amount of money and she is tricked into going along with it. She never understood that Baba’s job was to get her into the trade without creating a ruckus, and he manages to pull it off by charming Solah Saal. Baba’s mean game with Solah Saal makes Krishna’s seething anger turn into burning rage, and when Rekha is trying to walk out on Baba against his wishes and Baba is getting violent with her, Krishna stabs Baba to death and runs away together with Rekha. The two lose each other in the Ganesh Chaturthi procession. Krishna is now on his own, out of both the juvenile home as well as his Falkland Road corner, and there is no returning to either. And the credits roll.
Salaam Bombay! gives one a close view of the lowlife of Bombay, and much of what we see holds true for the life of the people belonging to the lower strata in any big city. But what really is the difference anyway? We see people harbouring fancy dreams of future like in any other society. We see social hierarchies based upon economic status. We see oppression and exploitation of the relatively poor at the hands of the relatively well off. We also see romance and the cold betrayal of trust for material gains. The basic nature of the struggles is also much the same as one finds in any class of the society. Whatever differences we perceive between different social classes do not really travel beyond the economic status and material comforts or lack of them. Everything else remains the same. The only significant difference might be that at that level, children get exposed to the harsh realities of life much earlier than the kids belonging to, say, middle class families and higher. Quite obviously, the early exposure is detrimental to the development of such children, for they are often misguided and abused, which makes them prone to seeing cruelty and selfish apathy as a way of life, which can only drag them deeper into the muck plunging them into a lifetime of misery.
Krishna, for instance, is betrayed by everybody from Chillum to the little Manju, who eats the biscuits sent for Solah Saal by Krishna on the way and lies to Krishna that she had given the biscuits to the intended recipient. Krishna does not get to know of Manju’s dishonesty or, for that matter, her being jealous of Solah Saal, but he does get to know of everybody else’s betrayal. This boy is most likely to see deceit and lies as one’s indispensable allies in the real world, and that’s a dangerously skewed worldview for anybody. At the same time, this also means that as a society we have miserably failed to practice what has always been preached by every single person who ever took the pulpit formally or informally as a teacher or a preacher or otherwise. Perhaps it is by pitting them against the vices that the truly virtuous are trained and tested the best. But then, too much too soon may do more harm than good. Salaam Bombay! displays remarkable restraint in not getting preachy and not attempting some kind of poetic justice. It just mirrors the reality as accurately as the medium of cinema permits and stops there. It leaves you feeling unfulfilled, a bit like the people in the film.