“Come back a film star!” a ticket agent in Salaam Bombay! says to an urchin about to board a train for India’s cinematic capital. Krishna (Shafiq Syed) arrives penniless and alone in Bombay, where the movie billboards promise action and glamour, but life for him is no Bollywood musical. Swept up into the city’s teeming underworld, he becomes a chaipau, delivering tea to ragpickers and coolies, on street corners and in brothels. Krishna finds a makeshift, combustible new family in a pimp, a prostitute, and the horde of stray kids who share the alley where he sleeps at night. Soon a young virgin arrives from the provinces to their red-light district, and threatens their fragile equilibrium.
Mira Nair’s compelling, neorealist first feature emerged on U.S. shores in 1988, bringing the realities of the post-colonial metropolis to our doorstep. Shot entirely on location, it shows characters caught in impossible compromises with fate, as they hold fast to their remaining illusions. The perfect cast includes both established Indian stars and nonprofessional actors, like the gum-chewing Madame, who didn’t mind lending her bordello for daytime shoots, since she used it mostly at night.
The director’s experience making documentaries served her well as she worked for weeks with the kids who inhabit Bombay’s backstreets. Whether they’re singing and dancing along in a movie theater or following a junkie’s funeral cortege, her camera captures their flamboyant toughness and vitality. But the real star of this film is the crowded, neon-lit byways of the city itself.