Salaam Bombay! (1988) – Film Review
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Shafiq Syed, Anjaan, Amrit Patel
By Sarah Morgan
What is the best way to announce yourself as a major movie-making talent? Well, directing and co-writing an Oscar-nominated project acclaimed across the globe would be one method – it certainly worked a treat for Mira Nair.
Born in India, she studied at Harvard and dabbled in acting before making documentaries exploring her cultural heritage. Then, in 1983, she and her friend Sooni Taraporevala penned the screenplay for Salaam Bombay! Five years later, it was released to enormous success.
Nair’s background in documentaries perhaps inspired the story and led her to add realism by casting genuine street children to play the young characters central to the plot. She really struck gold with Shafiq Syed, who was 12 years old when he landed the lead role of Chaipau.
When we first meet him, he’s been dumped at a travelling circus by his mother. After then being abandoned by its cruel owner, he makes his way to Bombay and befriends a group of local thieves, some older, others even younger than himself.
Chaipau scrapes a living by selling tea and doing other odd jobs; he saves up his money in the hope of earning enough to enable him to return to his home village. However, fate has other ideas.
Every time he seems to be getting ahead, something happens to leave him at rock bottom again and facing a new battle simply to stay alive.
Although Chaipau is the main focus, we witness the lives of other characters through his eyes, including ruthless pimp Baba, who views people as commodities, and Chillum, a former street kid-turned-drug dealer whose story is perhaps the most tragic of all.
Twenty years later, Slumdog Millionaire would feature individuals from a similar background, but in a far more sentimental, life-affirming way. Nair never pulls her punches in her depiction of the difficulties faced by Chaipau and his friends. As a result, her film is as much a social document as it is a work of drama.
She was clearly moved by the stories of the street children she cast, later setting up an organisation to rehabilitate them; Syed, so impressive here, currently works as a rickshaw driver in Bangalore. The sad thing is that, more than 30 years later, there are still so many youngsters living in the same conditions as his on-screen alter ego.
Tough, uncompromising, touching and so very moving, Salaam Bombay! remains an important film and has lost none of its impact.
• Presented in High Definition
• Audio commentary by Mira Nair (2013)
• Sandi and Bernard Sissel in Conversation (2021, 51 mins): newly recorded discussion with the cinematographer and her son, one of the children from Salaam Bombay!
• India Cabaret (1985, 60 mins): Mira Nair’s documentary about female strippers from a Bombay nightclub which provided the kernel of Salaam Bombay!
• Archive shorts (1906-1936, 31 mins): three gems from the BFI National Archive reflecting themes and iconography found in Salaam Bombay!, featuring city life in La vie aux Indes / Indian Scenes, an early Dickens adaptation of Oliver Twist and a look at tea production in India and Sri Lanka in Gardens of the Orient
• Original theatrical trailer
Salaam Bombay! is released on Blu-ray by the BFI, £19.99