If Salaam Bombay! had a theme song, it would be Still Crazy After All These Years.

The re-release of Mira Nair’s directorial debut on 22 March is more than a celebration of its 25th anniversary and a marketing warm-up exercise for the April opening of her new movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Salaam Bombay!’s return to the cinemas is an occasion to remember the bravado and passion that combined into a burst of energy to produce one of Indian cinema’s most affecting accounts of child labour.

Salaam Bombay!’s production budget was modest but its ambition was huge—to capture the hardscrabble lives of Mumbai’s street children. Most of the crew hadn’t been on a movie set before. Many of the actors were street children replaying episodes from their own lives. Salaam Bombay! was shot at actual locations, right in the middle of the chaos that is a staple of everyday life in Mumbai.

“The most challenging was keeping the money coming in while we were shooting, and then the shooting itself," Nair says. “As our crew T-shirt says, ‘No Guts No Glory/52 locations 52 days/What problem? No problem’."

Mira Nair

Written by Sooni Taraporevala, Salaam Bombay! is the story of Krishna aka “Chaipao", who bears witness to the harsh and unforgiving nature of Mumbai’s underbelly. The screenplay charts Chaipao’s bittersweet encounters with other children as well as members of a brothel to which he delivers glasses of tea. He befriends Manju, the daughter of prostitute Rekha and her pimp Baba, loses his heart to a Nepalese teenager whose virginity is going to be auctioned to the highest bidder, and lends a skinny shoulder to Chillum, a drug addict and grunt worker for Baba. Salaam Bombay!’s cast includes professionals like Anita Kanwar, Nana Patekar, Raghubir Yadav and Shaukat Azmi, but the movie belongs to the children, who were prepped at acting workshops by theatre director Barry John.

“From the beginning, Mira wanted to do a commercially viable film that was not only heart-wrenching and realistic but also at times deeply entertaining," Sissel says. “We wanted a realistic feeling without it at all being a documentary. We decided that the look should be as realistic as possible yet narrative in every way."

Apart from Pixote, Salaam Bombay! places itself in the tradition of such unsentimental yet emotionally involving children-themed dramas as The 400 Blows and Los Olvidados, Taraporevala adds. “We showed these films to the kids at the acting workshops," she says. “We felt part of a tradition but, of course in a particular situation that was Bombay. We were absolutely inspired by the city."

The flavours and textures of Mumbai’s evocative street life that made their way intoSissel’s Arriflex 4S 35mm camera have aged remarkably well a quarter of a century later (the movie won the best cinematography award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988). There’s an immediacy and intimacy to the cinematography, which follows the children around as they hustle for petty jobs at railway stations and street corners. Several moments were taken on the fly and on the sly. “At times we shot from rooftops or from inside a bus so that our actors could mix in with real people," Sissel says. “Many of the rooms were minuscule and we had to shoot night for day so that the sound was usable." The crew resorted to diversionary tactics during the shoot. “The additional camera operator, Mitch Epstein, often pretended to be shooting a scene down the street so that all the bystanders would go down to watch so that we could quickly shoot the scene we were working on," Sissel says.

Apart from a re-release at PVR multiplexes under the cinema chain’s Director’s Rare programming slot, Salaam Bombay! will also be available on a restored set of DVDs that will be issued by the movie’s co-producer, the National Film Development Corporation. “My own theory on why the film has all this energy is that it was a first for everybody," Taraporevala says. “You can’t work towards something like this—it just happens."

Salaam Bombay! will be released on 22 March at PVR Cinemas multiplex.

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