I BELIEVE I may have been put on this earth to tell stories of living between worlds,” writes Mira Nair in her introduction to the soon-to-be-published book The Reluctant Fundamentalist: From Book to Film. It’s a theme that runs through her wide-ranging movie career, and it takes on a very large scale in her adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel; The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about nothing less than the clash of civilisations. But the canvas was smaller, more intimate — and no less powerful for it — in Nair’s first feature film Salaam Bombay!, which is being released this week in a remastered print to mark its 25th anniversary. That film’s version of “between worlds” is summed up in a quiet scene where the 12-year-old protagonist Krishna/Chaipau and his older, more experienced junkie friend Chillum sit and talk in a graveyard. Living in the big city, they yearn for the pastoral life, for the cool air of the “muluk” they left behind. Chaipau has a theoretical chance of returning to that world — the film centres on his efforts to earn the 500 that will all ow him to do this, but for Chillum, it is already too late.
Today, there are many ways to take stock of Nair’s extraordinary film. There is, of course, the saphead position — having little to do with meaningful criticism — that goes: any depiction of poor people amounts to exoticising poverty for a western audience. But watch Salaam Bombay! and there is no doubting the seriousness of its intentions and the quality of its execution. Two decades before The White Tiger won the Man Booker and Slumdog Millionaire got its grubby hands on all those Oscars, Nair’s film depicted the lives of Bombay’s street children with nuance, with a pragmatic refusal to be either maudlin or voyeuristic. After all, one of her reference points was Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, a film that, as André Bazin put it, “did not refer to moral categories” or sentimentalise the poor.
Just as remarkable is the nearly seamless mixing in Salaam Bombay! of two disparate cinematic modes: this is a fiction narrative with scripted characters, but it also has elements of the Cinema Vérité in which Nair was trained in the US. It was shot on Bombay’s streets, in real train stations and real brothels, on an unprecedented scale, and hidden cameras were used for some scenes. The adult roles were played by actors such as Anita Kanwar, Nana Patekar and Raghuvir Yadav (magnificent as the snivelling, giggling Chillum), but working alongside them were a group of wonderful non-professional child performers, and there is no telling the difference. Workshops were conducted to siphon out the children’s preconceived ideas of what “movie acting” should be; in other words, to get these real-life street kids to play versions of themselves.
Handled less carefully, some of the film’s characters could have been hollow symbols, but Nair’s direction and Sooni Taraporevala’s writing achieve a perfect synthesis between sympathy and detachment. Sandi Sissel’s cinematography creates numerous elegant frames without over-prettifying. And then there is the way in which L Subramaniam’s beautiful violin-driven score — a masterstroke by Nair that may have seemed an eccentric or “western” decision on paper — embellishes, as opposed to thickly underlines, the story’s dramatic moments.
Salaam Bombay! helped open doors for a newer, grittier brand of Bombay filmmaking — beginning with the 1990s work of Ram Gopal Varma — and also led to the creation of the Salaam Baalak Trust, which has provided financial and emotional support to thousands of street children over the years. And so it is fitting that Penguin India has reprinted Nair’s 1989 book about the film’s genesis and legacy — a singular account of “private madness”, as she called it then. But there is no substitute for watching the film itself, especially on the big screen and in the re-mastered print. This is “pure cinema” while also being quasi-documentary, and it is as fresh today as when it was made.
A digitally remastered Salaam Bombay! is being screened by PVR Director’s Rare from 22 to 28 March