Salaam Bombay! (1988)

IMDb says that Shafiq Syed is repairing auto rickshaws in Bangalore these days. Almost every garage I have seen has either a chotu, or a kuLLa (Kannada word for a short boy). Syed must have been one of them, or probably he owns a garage himself. I have no idea.

In the Salaam Bombay! inspired MTV-India’s chaiwala filler, the chaipu pulls off a cute jig to a great Kishore Kumar number. I had vaguely heard that the movie was about one such chaipu (chai serving boy), and his (mis)adventures in the dark underbelly that-is/of Bombay.

Cigarettes are used to great effect in many movies. The Man With No Name chews on his cigar with aplomb. John McClane, Tyler Durden, Vincent Vega, Verbal Kint, Marv, and others have pulled that great looking drag. But Raghubir Yadav beats ’em all in that abandoned railway coach. The sound of Bombay Locals in the background, the light, absolutely no style, no fancy smoke patterns, just smoke, just that. No cigarette has hit me that hard.

Radio cricket commentary and Aneeta Kanwar’s despondent walk from the remand home present the simple and casual irony that everyday life of Bombay represents. As for various other depictions of pathos and irony: to describe them, I will have to lay the entire movie frame by frame here. Do watch out for Nana Patekar’s fake laughter in the studio; it’s a gem. Bombay Ganpati crowds are used in many movies for the spectacle of scale they represent. But here, Ganpati plays (or doesn’t play) a role which stands out for its timing, effect, and of course, irony.

Salaam Bombay! hit me hard, esp. when I, along with chaipu, realized that there was a new charsi on the block. After the movie got over, all I could think about was about those days when I used play with my buguri (spinning top) as a kid. Now, in retrospect, I realize that it was just a feeling of gratitude to the process that decided my life. To objectively think about the merits of the movie, or even about the overall theme, I had to detach myself from the movie experience. It took a while.

Now, the lead actor of the movie works in a garage. A lot of searching couldn’t tell me what the little girl who played the role of Manju is doing now; hope she is doing fine. Meera Nair has moved on to other things, Nana Patekar used his dramatic laughs in other exaggerated stereotyped roles. Life goes on in Bombay, with its chai and biscut, local trains, pimps, seal-opens, hopelessness, and hope. There are no obvious messages. Its for me to think about, and hopefully, act.


(1) : usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something
(2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking
(3) : an illuminating discovery
(4) : a revealing scene or moment

In the self referential film – Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman (of whom, I don’t think so highly, by the way) says:
…but what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens, where people don’t change, they don’t have any epiphanies. They struggle and are frustrated and nothing is resolved. More a reflection of the real world…

Some of these epiphanies dawn on to me, as I lead my life, various pieces of my mental jigsaw puzzle fall into place, and theories and events make sense. In the past, some have left me shocked, they have shown me my darker side. Some have flattered me. Some, I didn’t accept; reason told me they were true, but I just didn’t accept them. This “I” which is devoid of reason, this “I” is an interesting being.

Of all these moments of clarity: some get chosen, and become principles; others….well, others become nothing.

Each epiphany is also accompanied by the elation of having discovered something about myself. This elation is independent of whether the epiphany itself is flattering or not. This leads me to believe that a part of me gets happy even if it discovers that the rest of me is disgusting, despicable, not-upto-the-mark, or pathetic. This happy-to-have-known-something-new part, lets call it the audience. The moment the nature of an epiphany is identified: good, bad, flattering, disgusting – another part of me wants to keep it, or change it, or shed it, or in the worst case, forget it. Lets call it the critic. There is a part of me whose acts have lead to epiphanies, whose acts have kept the audience happy, on whom the critic will try to enforce its viewpoints, lets call it the actor. Further on, I lead more life – according to the principles I have made. The part of me which directs life, lets call it the director. The director has the scene in mind, knows what the critic wants, and makes the actor act accordingly.

Some questions remain unanswered:

– Where does the scene come from?
– Are these the only players in the arena?
– What role does time play? Is there a feedback loop that goes beyond the critic?
– Does the actor have to exist? Can principles be built without stimulants?

Stefan Kanfer said that – Philosophy is concerned with two matters: Soluble questions that are trivial, and crucial questions that are insoluble.

Charlie is obviously wrong when he says that the real world doesn’t have epiphanies. He wants to believe that life is normal, and boring, and has frustrations which go unresolved. Agreed that my epiphanies are not grand enough to make me change the course of my life visibly. I still contend that innocuous conversations, thoughtful films, great books, games nature plays, etc. do bring about epiphanies in my life; some of which have gone on to become principles.

Even the pilots which went on to become nothing, I enjoyed even those.

Yours sincerely,
Donald Kaufman