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Salaam Bombay!: Special Edition

Being a kid is a tough enough job to begin with — parents prod, siblings compete, school can be either a challenge or a bore. But growing up as a child of the streets in Bombay, India, is something altogether different. One of the nation's largest cities with an estimated population of around 13 million, Bombay has benefited from India's economic expansion over the past few decades, and standards of living have risen for many families. But the problem of homeless children has persisted — and in fact, it's become worse. When Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! was released in 1988, it was estimated that the city contained more than 35,000 street kids. Today that number has risen to more than 100,000. Their origins are diverse: Some arrive in the city from far-flung rural provinces, while others are refugees from local families stricken by poverty or abuse. Remarkably resilient for their young age (and resistant to accepting help), they take work as ragpickers, shoe-shiners, or even find their way into the netherworld of drugs and prostitution. When documentary filmmaker Nair decided to shoot her first feature, it was Bombay's street children that caught her attention. Forming a local acting workshop in the city's Grant Road red-light district, she worked with more than 100 boys and girls before choosing her cast. Her documentary instincts, along with Sooni Taraporevala's script and Sandi Sissel's cinematography, made Salaam Bombay! one of the year's top award-winners on the international film circuit. Shafiq Syed stars as 10-year-old Krishna, a boy from a rural village who misbehaves and is left by his mother with a traveling circus, told that he cannot return home until he earns 500 rupees. However, after the circus also abandons the boy, he boards a train for the nearest big city, which turns out to be Bombay ("Come back a movie star!" the ticket-agent says). Once in the city, Krishna settles in the Grant Road district, awash in brothels and heroin, where he finds work as a "chaipu," a boy who sells cups of tea on the street. Before long he becomes attached to one local brothel run by the ruthless Baba (Nana Patekar), a pimp who has a young daughter (Hansa Vithal) with his prostitute-wife Rekha (Aneeta Kanwar). New to the brothel is Solasaal (Chanda Sharma), a sixteen-year-old girl who has been sold by her family for her virginity, valued at 10,000 rupees for the right customer. Krishna immediately falls for Solasaal and wants to protect her, but he's also taken in by drug-dealer Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav), an eccentric layabout who teaches the boy the ways of the street, but cannot be entirely trusted. Amongst this ad hoc family, Krishna hopes to earn the money to find his way home, or at least build meaningful relationships with his new companions in Bombay.

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With the largest film industry in the world (responsible for no less than 1,000 new pictures per year), India is well-known for its "Bollywood" movies — breezy, entertaining, and largely inconsequential musicals that feature the country's most popular film stars (who also happen to be the country's best-selling pop-singers). But a smaller segment of the Indian film industry, known as "art house" fare, steadily has been making contributions to world cinema for some time now, thanks in part to directors like Mira Nair. Coming from a cinema verité background, Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala envisioned Salaam Bombay! as a not-quite-fiction, not-quite-fact project, fully intent to capture the sights and sounds of the Bombay street from a child's point of view. Admittedly a Dickensian exercise, the movie has a touch of Oliver Twist in the story, particularly with the key characters and their interpersonal dynamics. But the story never veers completely into melodrama — we also see how, under the harshest of circumstances, the children retain a capacity for enjoying life, even at its cruelest. Brief respites include singing and dancing and going to the theater to see the latest musical, and even an all-night session of hash-smoking between Krishna and Chillum conveys a certain trust and tenderness between Grant Road's Artful Dodger and his young charge. Nair has made several movies since this debut, recently scoring a hit with Monsoon Wedding, but Salaam Bombay! will always form the cornerstone of her career as an impressive debut that continues to earn admirers worldwide. MGM's release of Salaam Bombay!: Special Edition has been given lavish treatment on DVD, particularly for a foreign film that won't top any sales charts. Along with a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a good source-print, the Hindi audio is available in the original mono or an "enhanced" Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and English subtitles are on board. Supplements include a chatty English-language commentary from director Mira Nair, who recalls many details of the film's production; a second commentary from American cinematographer Sandi Sissel (who adopted one of the street boys and later brought him to America); six retrospective featurettes with principal cast members, visiting them as they are today; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—JJB



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