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'Salaam Bombay!' : (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1988

"Salaam Bombay!" plays a bit like "Oliver!" in Hindi, a lively, strangely celebratory look at the resilience of India's street children. It's a savvy, unsentimentalized first feature by director Mira Nair, a documentarian who finds innocence and a harsh playfulness in this asphalt nursery.

Nair's film has been compared to Hector Babenco's chilling "Pixote," a Brazilian look at a 10-year-old street criminal, but hers is a more compassionate, though equally troubling, portrait. There's a wistfulness about it, a camaraderie, that gives it the feel of a coming-of-age movie. Though on the dark side, it is exactly that -- a distorted passage for its boy hero, who experiences first love, disillusionment and death.

Shafiq Syed, a ragpicker in real life, plays the leading role of Krishna, an abandoned 10-year-old country boy who hopes to earn 500 rupees so he can go back home. At first the little bumpkin is an easy mark for Bombay's hustlers, who take the few rupees he has saved. Later he is accepted and educated by an extended street family of prostitutes and tattered peers. The kids are beggars and burglars, not angels with dirty faces. But Krishna is a Father Flanagan kind of kid, with a core of goodness underneath the grime.

When he arrives in Bombay, Krishna finds a lowly job as a chaipau (one who delivers tea) in a red-light district with its splashy bordellos. Here, life becomes complicated when he tries to rescue Sweet Sixteen (Chanda Sharma), a stunning Nepalese virgin who has been sold into prostitution. Baba (Nana Patekar), mercurial king of pimps, attempts to tame her with his oily charms -- a development that upsets his relationship with his prostitute lover (Aneeta Kanwar) and their neglected little daughter (Hansa Vithal). Krishna goes for tea, cleans bird cages, plucks chickens for a pittance. But instead of saving his money for a ticket home, he spends some on drugs for his ganja-addicted mentor, Chillum, with Raghubir Yadav wonderfully frantic in the role. The boy soon becomes a parent to the 25-year-old man. But through it all he remains at heart a motherless child, crying himself to sleep on his pallet of rags, sniffling, "I want to go home."

There will be no rich relative to rescue this Oliver, no Spielbergian magic a` la "E.T." But the ending does seem to come out of nowhere, overwrought and melodramatic. Nair and screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala aren't really great storytellers, but they are streetwise. Shot on a low budget, down and dirty and on location, "Salaam Bombay!" is like being there, if there is where you want to be.

Salaam Bombay! is unrated but contains themes potentially disturbing to children

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