When Mira Nair’s moving tribute to the resilience of Bombay’s street children was first seen in 1988, it drew comparisons with François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows for its unflinching depiction of a deprived young boy’s struggle against the odds. Twenty-odd years later, the point of reference has changed. Now Nair’s film is “the original Slumdog Millionaire (opens in new tab)”.
Like Slumdog, her film has a homeless young protagonist battling to survive by his wits on the city’s teeming streets: here the young hero is 10 or 11-year-old Krishna (played by Shafiq Syed) who comes to Bombay after being abandoned by the travelling circus that has been his home. There he gets a job as a tea boy (anticipating Slumdog’s chai wallah), a chaipau delivering tea and bread to the inhabitants of a fetid corner of the city’s red-light district. And, again anticipating Slumdog, he befriends a girl whose virginity goes up for sale to the highest bidder.
Energy and vitality
Unlike Slumdog, however, Salaam Bombay! doesn’t sweeten its depiction of poverty with feelgood fantasy, but Nair does nevertheless convey the energy and vitality that here co-exists with extreme deprivation.
With a background in documentary filmmaking, Nair shot Salaam Bombay! entirely on location, after first conducting workshops among Bombay’s real-life street children and using their true stories as the basis for her screenplay. This, too, is how she found her young star, the remarkable Syed.
Just as Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatres Cent Coups) won the Best Director award at Cannes in 1959, and just as Slumdog Millionaire has been garlanded with prizes, Nair’s gritty and compassionate movie met with well-deserved kudos, winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1988.
Following this success, Nair went on to direct a string of acclaimed movie, both in India and the West, including Mississippi Marsala, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Vanity Fair and the magical Monsoon Wedding, but you could argue that Salaam Bombay! remains her greatest achievement.
Released 30th March
A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.
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