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.

9 thoughts on “Salaam Bombay! (1988)

  1. I watched Salaam Bombay! beginning of this semester and the scene with the ‘bhuguri’ (spinning top) is just unforgettable. Sheer poetry in how it packs the essence of hours long movie into one metaphor!

    I have (touch wood) mostly lived under the brighter, warmer, larger, richer wingspan of life. Yet (or perhaps because of it) the lives of those repeatedly affected by the sharp beating of wounded wings, when life struggles to take off, calls for at least some sincere thought.

    Salaam Bombay! need not have had high ideals to portray, or lessons to preach. It starkly puts us in the midst of raw lives, which otherwise, we’d have never entered on our own.

    I am sure that in some of our most despondent moments, or just moments of sheer apathy even to our own lives, we’d have felt the urge to stop the spinning top – on purpose. No deep thought, no true passion might have come to our rescue…and yet we pick uo the chord and start spinning again…

    Chaipu is a hero because he “lives” it all…only life can answer life.

  2. I am currently reading Satyajit Ray’s collection of essays titled “Speaking of films”. Its a superb read to anyone interested in the nuances of cinema and how various elements of a scene are used to convey the central theme of the film.

    If you get a chance to read it, check out his use of the elements in the opening sequence of “Charulatha”. Quite brilliant!

  3. “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.”

    This is a very nice thought. I can harmonize with that feeling of growing up, symbolised by the spinnng top. My understanding of drug store psychology tells me that I am romanticizing those times because that is the natural tendecy of the mind. But it doesn’t really matter, what matters is, as you have pointed out, the sense of gratitude to the process that shaped our lives. What matters even more is our concerted effort to be a value added part of someone else’s process. After all, making sure everyone get their due process is one of the tenets of a free society. Agreed, the definition of true process was made in the context of judicial processes, but I feel that an equivalent social definition should be made to ensure all the other lives “that are struggling to take off” are given their due process.
    I apologize if some of my comments were off beat, but I was trying to blend the sentiments and context of your post with those my thoughts on processes. Some dissonance and chaos is to be expected 🙂

  4. @Silentnotes: But does he live because he wants to live? or does he live because he doesn’t know that he can die, and end his life? End his life in the sense of ending it as he knows it – by becoming a drug addict, serial killer, whatever.

    I think he is too young to decide on life at all, and his being a kid is more on the perspective issue than on anything else. Have to think more on it though. As usual, great writing. How I wish you start writing more often on lelivre.

    @Jo: Please do.

    @SriniAtTheMovies: I am reading Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, and it also talks about a lot on the technical aspects of movie-making. A fantastic read. Will check out Ray’s book as well.

    @EmperorFrost: I don’t know what Drug Store Psychology means. No amount of searching online helped; damn the search engines. Additionally, my perspective is that life could also be random draw. Einstein might be right and God might be playing dice. Some people get their due, and some people just don’t. Lines have to be drawn on what is essential and what are preferences. Thrown in a dash of culture, limited natural resources, NP-hard logistics, and we have a great mixture to ponder about. Blame the last 3 sentences on dissonance and chaos.

  5. drug store psychology basically means the kind of doctors (or psychologists) that drug store chemists make. I am sure you know of incidents where people walk up to these chemists, describe their symptoms and the chemist, employing his experience of dispensing drugs, prescribes drugs according to the symptoms. Now, you can sort of relate drug store psychology to arm chair psychology and by now, I am sure you know what I mean.

    I just don’t understand NP problems at all, at least I haven’t tried to. Anyway, with regards to your point of how some are born with “it” while others aren’t, I think in a welfare society/state the ones with the “dues” ought to help out the less unfortunate ones. After all, its not their fault. Blame it on Einstein!

    don’t you hate that they still haven’t got RSS feeds for comments?

  6. @Frost: Yeah, Blogspot still has a long way to go. But other blogging-on-personal-space tools like WordPress do have comment feeds, I have heard.

    As for NP problems. You can read my attempted pop-writing on NP-hard problems here:
    and here:

    Yeah, the concept of fairness – of those who had their dues helping out those who haven’t. But this begs the question: why does one have to be fair? It seems intuitive that one has to, but any hard core reasoning there?

    We need to meet up over a drink and talk some of these things through.

  7. That is true Tejaswi. Chaipu is too young to decide on life. He is not aware of the many different kinds of deaths possible. Unlike the character of Abhishek Bachhan in Yuva..where you know you have gone too far, and going back to a clean beginning is going to be as tedious to the spirit as going ahead with the dreary life you have been living.

    Reminds me of this line from Macbeth.
    “I am in blood
    Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,
    Returning were as tedious as go o’er:”

    Perhaps, in the world of children there is no moral limbo. That is what can salvage them from true tragedy. This is the charm of the movie too, that it stops from becoming tragic in its true sense – it stops from showing that some things in the life of a an adult, could very well be, irreparable and irretrievable.

    (Hmmm…lelivre. I do have the right mix of frustration, loneliness and longing to write…but alas! the will is weak, must wonder why…The true challenge is – if one can write when life does not feel like a vacuum, but rather brimming with life itself. Anyway…that is a whole new blog!)

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