“Salaam Bombay!,” the newly released feature film debut by Indian American director Mira Nair, has already claimed a place among the all time movie classics dealing with the theme of childhood.
Its tale of street children surviving in the heart of one of India’s major cities has been compared to everything from “Oliver!,” the English musical version of Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist,” to “Pixote,” the powerful, bleak Brazilian drama about the exploitation of children in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
“Salaam Bombay!” was honored as best first feature film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has been showered with praise by critics and audiences wherever it has been shown. Perhaps the film’s most impressive achievement is its ability to steer a clear-eyed path between the sentimentality and hopelessness epitomized by the aforementioned films.
For Mira Nair, that characteristic was not something that had to be induced so much as observed.
“I was really struck by the vitality of the kids in the streets of Bombay,” she said in an interview with the Examiner. “The fact that, in the face of something that impossibly difficult, they had a spirit of being complete survivors—not miserably, but often with a lot of style, dignity and flamboyance. They just had a great appetite for living—that inspired me.”
“Salaam Bombay!” follows the exploits of Krishna, a 10-year-old boy who, having been kicked out of the house and abandoned by a traveling circus, makes his way to Bombay. He is drawn into the mad rush of life on the streets with thousands of other homeless children. It’s a world dominated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and the police, where drugs and impossible movie fantasies provide a temporary escape.
Becoming “Chaipau” (one who delivers tea), Krishna meets an array of characters that will change his life, including Chillum, an older street veteran who sells drugs for Baba, the suave and dangerous head pimp of the district. At a brothel, Krishna meets Rekha, a strong, resilient prostitute and her daughter Manju. He also becomes enamored with a young Nepalese girl who has been sold to the brothel as a virgin prostitute.
Krishna becomes a catalyst in their lives as their stories intertwine. Through it all, life on the streets for Krishna and his friends is told in a realistic manner with compassion, humor and insight.
One of the film’s most extraordinary aspects is that it was filmed entirely on location with mostly non-actors taken from Bombay’s streets. After several months of interviews and research with screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala, Nair and her staff set up a workshop to recruit the children.
“One hundred thirty kids came the first day, and we auditioned them down to 24 kids and worked for six weeks—six days a week,” she said. Teaching a combination of dance, exercise, yoga and mime, they also had the kids watch Charlie Chaplin movies and do improvisations on themes important to them.
“In the fourth week, I introduced a video camera and showed them—by revealing and not lecturing—what I wanted in acting, which was completely against the grain of Indian acting in cinema that they had seen and were fed on—these overblown performances by heroes and stars,” she explained. “Naturalism is what I was after.”
As it turned out, it was not the children she had to worry about. “I thought that the kids would have to rise up to the professionalism of the actors, but it was actually the other way around,” Nair said. “The kids are so transparently honest and beautifully raw that the professional actors had to reach that standard of untheatricality.”
To that end, the actors in the major adult roles, recruited from the stage and television, took part in the workshops and “they were very good—they became very attuned to the kids and the kids to them,” Nair said.
Finding the right boy for the pivotal role of Krishna was crucial. Shafiq Syed, an 11-year-old who eventually got the role “was a rag-picker who was part of the workshop,” she said. “And he very quickly distinguished himself by his ability to fling himself into whatever he was doing—so totally that he had to stop himself. Mostly, it was ability to be a child and a man.
Once the workshop ended, filming on the streets began immediately, even though only half the budget had been secured. Nair felt it was important to keep the momentum of the workshop going; she scrambled to raise additional funding as filming progressed.
Nair recalled being turned down for funding from American sources because the film was not in English. She humorously remembered being told, “You know, have you ever heard of an Indian film making money here?” “Also it was my first feature,” she added.
Nair was able to raise the remainder of the money by turning to sources in television that had shown or financed her documentary work. “Salaam Bombay!,” official a co-production between India, England and France, was a small scale independent production. Very few concessions were made to accommodate the filmmaker’s needs.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “A lot of people said it was impossible to do. It demanded a lot of concentration on the part of the kids and the professional actors to perform highly dramatic scenes in the full view of thousands of commuters.”
Those ever-present crowds, ranging in number from 500 to 5,000 in front of the camera—and all the other variables in location shooting—were turned to advantage, however.
“One way to gain solidarity with the crowd was to cast them in the film,” she said. “That was something I did all the time because the film is as much a portrait of Bombay as it is anything else. Bombay is made up of a wonderful array of eccentric and particular characters, so we have that color as a result—there were constantly rewards.”
Nair’s ability to capitalize on the moment and her commitment to realistic portrayals are no doubt connected to her background in documentary filmmaking. She has created several award-winning films that examine life in contemporary India, particularly relating to women.
Nair’s work includes the controversial “India Cabaret,” about the lives of Bombay strippers. That piece explored the stereotypes of the “respectable” and “immoral” woman in Indian society. Another documentary, “So Far From India,” profiled an Indian immigrant who runs a New York City subway newsstand while his wife waits for him in India. “So Far From India” was shown at the last Seattle Asian American Film Festival.
A consistent hallmark of Nair’s work is a clear-eyed, non-judgmental style that examines the lives of ordinary people. Much like the premise of the children’s acting workshop, her films reveal rather than lecture to the audience.
Filmmaking was not Nair’s original goal. She claims to never have really seen movies of any type until she was 20. Now 31, Nair was born in India’s eastern state of Orissa, were her father worked as a civil servant. Her interest in the arts began with theatre, when she was sent north to Sembla for schooling during her teens.
Nair, after a year at Delhi University studying sociology and acting with a Western-style repertory theatre company, decided to go abroad to study and ended up at Harvard University.
“At the time, I suffered under the illusion I was an academic,” she said. “So I applied to all these American institutions pretty naively not knowing one from another. I applied to the biggest simply because I needed the full scholarship to get there.”
However, her interest waned, she said, when she found that “theater was not inspiring.”
“It was doing a lot of musicals like ‘Oklahoma!’ which has no relationship to me at all,” Nair said. “So I took a course in photography where I met my husband, Mitch Epstien [“Salaam Bombay’s” co-producer and production designer] and then stumbled into documentary filmmaking.
For much of the last decade, Nair has split her time between New York City and India working on her films. Her bi-cultural existence has no doubt influenced her work, but it is not something she can easily define. “I don’t think about labels, really I don’t,” she revealed. “My roots are Indian and I am based here. I use everything in my life to my advantage—even the confusion of it.”
Her eclectic range of experience will be put to maximum use on her next project: a dramatic feature film to be made in the U.S. This one is set in the American south and concerns an Indian family that immigrates from Uganda after the expulsion of all Asians during Idi Amin’s rule.
Nair is also waiting for the release of “Children of Desired Sex,” a documentary completed earlier for Canadian television as part of an international series on women and development. The film examines the use of amniocentesis as a sex determination test to help in aborting female fetuses in India. She describes it as “using technology to reinforce the traditional preference for male children.”
At present, Nair is concentrating on the Indian premier of “Salaam Bombay!” in December. Because of its radically different style, the film will go against the grain of India’s rather gaudy popular cinema that is the antithesis of her work. Nair believes that the success of “Salaam Bombay!” may lie in the controversy and word-of-mouth it generates, as did “Indian Cabaret.”
The reaction to that earlier film had “people in the audience really connecting with the extraordinariness of ordinary people on screen,” she said. She’s hoping that the feeling will extend to “Salaam Bombay!”
“We may be really asking for the moon in the sense that is had nothing to do with the conventions of Indian cinema,” Nair said. “But Sooni Taraporevala, the screenwriter, and myself firmly believe that there are many stories in India that are crying out to be told and told well, compellingly and dramatically and not cater to what Indian producers or what everyone all over the world says is the lowest common denominator-people will not understand. I just don’t underestimate an Indian or any audience.”
When Nair returns to India for the premiere, she’ll be able to personally check on the progress of a special project that has grown out of the film—a non-profit organization called the Salaam Bombay Trust that will help finance two learning centers for street kids in Bombay and Delhi. A series of benefit screenings in various cities, done in conjunction with local organizations, will help raise the financing.
While promoting “Salaam Bombay!” in the U.S., Nair has run into questions about the possible exploitation of children with the film.
“People ask me, ‘Have they gone back to the streets?’ and I say they never left the streets,” she said. “The idea is not to give them an experience that is so utterly alien from their existence that they would be completely confused at the end of it. The idea was that this is a film about that reality.”
From the outset, Nair was aware of her responsibility.
“The whole attitude that informed the workshop was one of meeting the kids halfway and never talking down to them or attempting to reform them—there’s no room for pity in their lives,” she said. “They’re really streetwise kids who get on their own.
“At the same time, we knew they were children, and the whole idea was to increase their sense of self-worth and dignity, but even though dignity may be permanent, a kid needs guidance or at least availability for help.”
The children were paid according to scale, like regular Indian actors, and much of that money was set aside in individual trust and savings accounts with each child’s consent. Also, Nair’s assistant director, child psychologist Dinaz Stafford, still works full-time with the children.
After production was completed, each child was asked what one thing they would most like to do, and the staff worked to make those wishes happen. Five of the kids have gone home to their villages, four managed to break through the bureaucratic red tape and go to school, three work as messengers at film company, and another, who is artistically inclined, teaches sculpture to blind children.
That their situation is still tenuous, however, is clear from the experience of Shafiq, the film’s star. He went home, only to return to the city because of friction with his alcoholic parents. He later dropped out of school and then walked off a job until finding his niche as an actor in a play with some of the other kids from the film.
Nair has no illusions about solving all the street kids’ problems, but she sees the establishment of the learning centers as a challenge that needs to be taken.
“I am a filmmaker,” she states emphatically. “I’m just using this because it demands to be used—its creating so many waves. The film is profitable, and why not use some of the profits to make the idea that film shares—which is children and the fact that they have become invisible in today’s world.
“People just accept that there are millions of kids just out there. They are really incredibly gifted human beings.”