Film Reviews

In a City Where Life Is Just Barely Possible
By Vincent Canby | The New York Times | October 7, 1988


Krishna, a small, spindly legged 10-year-old country boy, is kicked out of the house by his mother and told not to return until he has 500 rupees to pay for a bicycle he has ruined. Krishna drifts to the nearest big city where, without effort, he is absorbed into Bombay's proliferating population of homeless street kids.

A concerned documentary would probably treat Krishna as one of the faceless mob, important mostly as a representation of a human condition. The film that contained him would be a general statement, and Krishna himself, old beyond his years, would remain unknowable, forever lost. How sad, we would be asked to say, and then, but that's India.

The achievement of ''Salaam Bombay!,'' Mira Nair's remarkably good first fiction feature, is that Krishna has his own identity. He's an utterly specific character. Krishna may be naive, but he quickly learns how to get along in a world of beggars, prostitutes, drug pushers and vicious rip-off artists, some of whom are quite respectable.

For a film about such hopelessness, ''Salaam Bombay!'' is surprisingly cheering, not because Miss Nair has sentimentalized the scene but because, being Indian herself, she understands the particular reality of what appears, to us tourists, to be hopelessness. Seen close up, rather than from the window of a taxi cab, despair is not so easily recognized. Life, lived always on the edge of disaster, is coped with, if not always with success.

''Salaam Bombay!'' isn't exactly an upper, but neither is it a predigested social treatise. That the film is less nightmarish than Hector Babenco's riveting ''Pixote'' may have something to do with its being set in India rather than Brazil. There's a kind of ancient sophistication about the Bombay demimonde that is different from life in Sao Paulo, where widespread poverty and rootlessness are only a little older than the glass-and-steel high-rises of the very rich.

''Salaam Bombay!'' will be shown at the New York Film Festival tonight at 9:15 and tomorrow at 11:30 A.M. It opens its commercial engagement Sunday at the Lincoln Plaza 1.

Miss Nair, 31, who was born and brought up in India and studied at Harvard as an undergraduate, has made four documentaries, all in India, which obviously helped prepare her for this work of fiction. One doesn't necessarily feed the other, however. ''Salaam Bombay!'' demonstrates this young director's extraordinary self-control when faced with fiction's manifold possibilities. The movie possesses a free-flowing exuberance not often associated with the documentary form.

Even more unusual is the director's success with her actors. Without the film's program notes, I'm not sure I'd be able to tell the professionals from the non-professionals.

The children, all non-professionals, are splendid, especially Shafiq Syed, the little boy who plays Krishna, and Hansa Vithal, as the tiny, stoic daughter of a Bombay prostitute and her pimp. The exceptionally good pro-actors include Aneeta Kanwar as the prostitute, Nana Patekar as the pimp, and Raghubir Yadav as a God-forsaken drug addict who, early on, befriends Krishna.

''Salaam Bombay!,'' which was written by Sooni Taraporevala from a story by her and Miss Nair, is rich with self-explanatory incident. Action is character. Dialogue is spare. Even the camera is laconic. Though shot (beautifully by Sandi Sissel) entirely on location in Bombay, under conditions that could not have been easy, the film and its characters are never overwhelmed by local color.

Miss Nair sees Bombay less as a recognizable city than as the ever-present chaos surrounding Krishna and the people who move in and out of his life. Bombay is a place of noise, restless movement and no privacy whatsover. It is squalor accepted as the natural order of things, and thus accommodated.

Miss Nair does not share this fatalism, but in ''Salaam Bombay!'' she allows us to examine it without panic, and without patronizing it. She is a new film maker to watch. CHILDREN WITHOUT CHILDHOOD - SALAAM BOMBAY!, directed and produced by Mira Nair; screenplay (Indian with English subtitles) by Sooni Taraporevala, from a story by Miss Nair and Miss Taraporevala; photography by Sandi Sissel; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by L. Subramaniam; production designer, Mitch Epstein. A Cinecom Release. At Alice Tully Hall tonight and tomorrow as part of the 26th New York Film Festival; opens Sunday at the Lincoln Plaza 1, 63d Street and Broadway. Running time: 113 minutes. This film has no rating. Krishna/Chaipau...Shafiq Syed Koyla...Sarfuddin Qurrassi Keera...Raju Barnad Chillum...Raghubir Yadav Rekha...Aneeta Kanwar Baba...Nana Patekar Manju...Hansa Vithal Salim...Mohanraj Babu


The New York Times | October 7, 1988

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