The Original Slumdog Millionaire: Salaam Bombay

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I have had so many people ask me, "so what did you think of Slumdog Millionaire?" given my track record of interest in Indian slum politics.  While I have been holding out on writing a review or reaction, what I do have to say is that not ALL Bollywood films are mere gloss and escapism and many of the undercurrents and themes in the movie can be found in several Bollywood films that seek to expose urban poverty in a realistic light, and secondly not ALL Indian films are Bollywood films.  There is an independent, non-musical film genre in India as well.  

With these two points laid out, I would like to turn the attention to a movie I watched about five years ago as a first-year student at the university during my old uni's monthly international film screening.  I have since seen the movie several times and own it.  It is Salaam Bombay (click here to watch the trailer) by now-renowned director Mira Nair (of The Namesake and Monsoon Wedding), for whom the movie was her first major production, released in 1988.  Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, most of the child actors in the movie were actual streetchildren, who received an intensive acting workshop to prepare for the roles.  The movie also touches upon rougher subjects in more depth and with harsher consequences, such as prostitution and the law, drug dependency, theft, and inequality.

My favorite scene in the film is when Krishna and his large gang of friends from the street get hired to serve food at a local wedding.  They are suddenly taken out of their dirty, pedestrian clothes and put into cartoonish (I believe red) serving uniforms.  As they are serving food you can tell how much they value the food and would love to have some.  More strikingly, they are serving food not only to adults but to other children their same age, but who find themselves on the other, more happy side of the poverty fence: children who can afford to enjoy childhood.  At one point a chubby boy greedily serves himself to a fistful of fried snacks on the serving tray that Krishna is carrying, and if I remember correctly (I might be mistaken) makes him drop the tray or almost drop it.  Krishna automatically slaps the boy across the face, to the upper class boy's utter dismay and shock.  In its sadness, there are many such amusing sequences.

The lead character, Krishna, is hauntingly played by Shafiq Syed.  More than anything, this movie should have been a warning sign of the problems slumchildren face upon receiving instant fame.  Syed won the National Film Award for Best Child Actor, the movie went to Cannes and was nominated for the BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Picture.  Syed, then 12 also received praise and attention for his mature portrayal of a poor, orphaned street chaiwala or tea delivery boy (sound familiar?), and the makers of the film had trust funds set up for the actors.  Now Shafiq Syed is an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore.  If you want to see a more realistic, non-Bollywood format, but Indian-directed movie, then I encourage you to see the original, more sedate-or as Mr. Amitabh Bachchan would put it-the lesser "poverty porn" of its genre.

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