There have been many movies based on the street life, children and slums. In the 70’s and 80’s, Bollywood practically thrived on the streets, with the protagonist often rising from the slums to conquer the world. The films were melodramatic and the scenes which were supposed to be emotional, actually bordered on nausea. The most recent take on the slums and brothels was the Oscar winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Danny Boyle’s on screen rendition of Q&A was a wonder for the west but cinematically was a waste. It focused on poverty so much that you are automatically inclined to connect that to the country at large. Between melodrama and racial offense, came a quiet masterpiece by a debutant director which revolutionized modern Indian filmmaking and set the field for better things to come.
The absence of a proper script or story proved to be a blessing in disguise for Mira Nair, allowing her to set herself loose in the streets of Bombay and the story wrote itself. The brilliance of the screenplay by Sooni Taraporevala was in how it made us empathize with each and every character, however insignificant he/she might have been. ‘Chaipau’ might have been the ultimate protagonist in any other film, with the entire story revolving around him. But Sooni, much like the confusing lanes of the Bombay slums, weaves her story to other characters, making us a part of their troubled and yet happy lives. We laugh with the two faced drug pusher, ‘Chillum’, pity his descend into madness and weep out loud at his final rites. We enter the infamous red light area through the footsteps of innocent ‘Sola Saal’, who is sold for her virginity. We see the estranged family of the local influence ‘Baba’ and his prostitute wife, ‘Rekha’, their clash of emotions and their attention starved daughter, Manju. The story delicately shows their difficult lives, with Chaipau losing his job, but shows a never-ending hope in every brick and speckle of dust in that area. The audience somehow falls behind him on his quest to save Rs. 500, even feeling the quiet excitement as the little urchins rob an elderly Parsee in broad daylight. There are moments where we felt like calling Chaipau and giving him the money, or lift Manju up in the air and play with her, or just slap ‘Baba’ in the face for his malicious lies.
This connection was present throughout, something seriously lacking in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. We never really connect with the exploits of Jamal Malik nor are we annoyed with the shrewdness of Salim. Latika was supposed to symbolize chastity in the midst of debauchery, but somehow she came out as manipulative. Both had its share of love angles, but the love between Jamal and Latika seemed a tad too much, lacking pain and possessing a sympathy-seeking syndrome. It lacked the tender innocence of the smitten Chaipau and foreign ‘Sola Saal’, well symbolized through a tiny chicken or the coy smile she had on her face while day dreaming about the treacherous ‘Baba’. The rift between the impoverished and the influential is apparent in both but shown in contrasting ways. While the Oscar Winner took the aid of violence and poorly showcased ruthlessness to bring about that clash, Mira Nair resorted to subtle imageries and moments to highlight it. She showed the resentment of the trodden class towards the uplifted by a simple humiliation scene. She did not dig up guns and other instruments of torture to degrade the ultimate motive of the picture, making it, in other words, aesthetically pleasing. It is wonderful how she ignored the picturesque filth of Bombay, which had formed the backdrop of Danny Boyle’s film, and instead chose to focus on the humanitarian aspect of the people living on the streets. Her intricate camera was like a baton, directing a poetic musical, showing the filth without making the audience nauseated. Most importantly, Mira Nair showed hope, endless hope, possessed by these shadowy souls, that one day their dreams will come true, and they live on their tough lives clinging to that hope – The hope of Chaipau to return to his native, of Manju to get the care and love she lacked and of Rekha to take Manju from the perils of prostitution. Danny Boyle resorted to vulgarity to bring out this meaning, using the poverty as a weapon to gain sympathy from the west.
The entire cast of Salaam Bombay, baring a few names, was mostly from the streets itself. Mira Nair never taught them to act, but behave naturally in front of the camera. The children delivered with aplomb, making it into a fantastic documentary on humanism. Nana Patekar was menacing as Baba and the talented Raghubir Yadav turned heads with his brilliant performance as Chillum. Shafiq Syed as Chaipau was supposed to be the start of a fantastic journey, but the prodigy is now an auto-driver in Bangalore. Irfaan Khan came in for 2 minutes and shone like always as the irate letter writer. Other than Irfaan Khan and Saurav Shukla, the cast of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ put in ludicrous performances, especially Anil Kapoor, who apparently seemed too excited to be a part of a Hollywood production. The intense naturalism which formed the backbone for Salaam Bombay was sadly lacking in this high budget production, making it fantastical and to some extent, offensive.
L.Subramaniam’s background score for ‘Salaam Bombay’ was thematic music at his best. Rarely does the background music in a film go hand in hand with every twist and turn, and this collaboration between Mira Nair and L. Subramaniam was sympatric. The jazz fusion coupled with some excellent violin work helped in carrying the meaning behind the film to a whole new level altogether, making the audience empathize further with the characters and the streets of Bombay. We rarely got that from Slumdog. Clearly the West had never heard of A.R. Rehman before. He was brilliant as usual, but his work for ‘Roja’, ‘Taal’ or ‘Bombay’ should have had the international recognition instead of ‘Jai Ho’. The songs were good and the score was fun, but was parallel to the film’s story, not even tangential.
Mira Nair had taken a leaf out of the book of neo-realism, co-authored by Satyajit Ray and Vittorio De Sica. Her filmmaking had certain elements akin to the masters’ works, especially the audacious use of the surroundings and its elements to highlight particular scenes, something which Raam Reddy would repeat with ‘Thithi’. Salaam Bombay is a treat to watch and is modern filmmaking at its very best. The Academy Award Loss and blissful ignorance by the home media was baffling to say the least. If films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ can sweep the Oscars, the audience does expect art like Salaam Bombay to win at least one golden statuette. It did win our hearts though and would remain a film which all Bollywood filmmakers should try to emulate. ‘Salaam Bombay’. Salaam Mira Nair.