Salaam Bombay! Reviewed

Recently we had the opportunity to watch Salaam Bombay! , a 1988 Hindi film directed by Mira Nair, and screenwritten by her longtime creative collaborator, Sooni Taraporevala.  If, like me, you loved Slumdog Millionaire, I might describe Salaam Bombay! as an early precurser to that more recent commercial success.

Salaam Bombay! coverSalaam Bombay! chronicles the day-to-day life of children living on the streets of Mumbai. It won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, the National Board of Review Award for Top Foreign Film, the Golden Camera and Audience Awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and three awards at the Montréal World Film Festival.  The film was India’s second film submission ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The story of Krishna, Manju, Chillum and the other children of the streets of Mum bai (then Bombay). Sometimes they can get a temporary job sellng tea, but mostly they have to beg for money and keep out of the way of the police.

As the story begins, fed up with being continuously bullied by his elder brother, our 10 year old hero Krishna sets fire to his brother’s motor-bike, which lands him in big trouble with his mother. She takes him to the nearby Apollo Circus and tells him that he can only come home when he earns 500 rupees to pay for the damaged bike. Krishna agrees and finds a job with the circus, but one day his boss asks him to run an errand and when Krishna returns, he finds that the circus has packed up and left.

Alone and with nowhere to turn, and unable to find the money to repay his mother, he decides to travel to the nearest big city – Mumbai. As soon as he arrives, he is robbed of all his meager possessions. He follows the thieves and befriends them, and ends up in the city’s notorious red-light area of Falkland Road, near the Grant Road Railway Station.

One of the thieves, Chillum, also a drug pusher and addict, helps Krishna get a job at the “Grant Road Tea Stall.” Krishna gets a new name, “Chaipau,” and learns to live with it. His goal is to get the money he needs to return home to his mother, but he soon finds out that saving money in his surroundings with the people near him is next to impossible. To make matters worse, he has a crush on a young prostitute named Sola Saal. He sets fire to her room and attempts to escape with her, but the two are caught. This gets Krishna a severe beating, and he loses his job. He works odd jobs to feed himself and look after Chillum, who can’t live without his drugs. To get more money, Krishna and his pals rob an elderly Parsi man by breaking into his house in broad daylight. One night while returning home, the boys are apprehended by the police and taken to a juvenile home. Eventually, Krishna escapes and goes back to his world of drug-pushers, pimps and prostitutes, still nurturing his dream of one day returning to his mother.

This is a gritty look into the underbelly and plight of Bombay’s poor street children, who call the gutters of its filthy urban streets home. It is filled with the sights and sounds of this urban nightmare.

In less than two hours you can feel the pulse of Mumbai. The constant run…the quest for survival…dreams…realization…struggle…failures… Mira Nair takes you to the most notorious places of Mumbai. She paints the city’s factual picture without being subjective. The trains, tonga-wallahs, Cabs, Indian festivals and Cricket- the two most important part of India, Bollywood-Filmy hand painted posters, theatres, red-light areas, chai-wallas, music all brims out with emotions throughout the film. Mira Nair pays tribute to those people who make Mumbai so special and an existing phenomenon.

Some trivia —

Most of the young actors who appeared in Salaam Bombay! were actual street children. They received dramatic training at a special workshop in Bombay before they appeared in the film.

In 1989, director Mira Nair established an organization called the Salaam Baalak Trust, to rehabilitate the children who appeared in the film. Most of them were eventually helped. The Trust is still in existence, and now lends support to street children in Mumbai, Delhi and Bhubaneshwar.

This was the movie showing in the theatre during the film Scenes from a Mall, starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler.

Shafiq Syed, who played the role of Krishna in the movie now earns his living as an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore.

The story roughly follows the Midnight Cowboy theme, in which the protagonist is robbed of his minimal possessions upon arrival in the bigcity by a crippled man (Dustin Hoffman/Raghubir Yadav) who in end turns out to be his best-buddy, is drug addict in both cases, and dies tragically in the end in spite of the protagonist’s help, chiefly due to shortage of drugs/food.

We give Salaam Bombay! 3.5 stars out of 4.


  1. This is a beautiful film worth renting that set the whole genre a decade before Slumdog Millionaire.

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