Monday, July 18, 2016

Salaam Bombay

The Guy took me to a screening of Salaam Bombay yesterday afternoon. It was a really good movie, yet left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied. As I confessed to the Guy when we were two-thirds of the way into the movie, I was even a little bored.

I haven't seen many of Mira Nair's movies, though I think I've seen the most famous ones. I was blown away by Monsoon Wedding and Missisippi Masala, and quite enjoyed Vanity Fair; I was less enthralled by The Namesake and Kamasutra (though I think I only saw a part of this last and can't make a fair judgement).

I loved the first few scenes of the movie. They were so spare in dialog, so rich in visual storytelling and the use of sound (but not exposition). It took so little for us to sympathize with little Krishna, our protagonist and point of view character, who's been abandoned by the circus he worked at and finds his way to Bombay.
The fact that Bombay is now home for me -- and that most of the street scenes were shot in my part of town -- added an extra layer of intimacy to the movie. I might have passed a Krishna or a Rekha (the sex worker with the stereotypical heart of gold) on the street on my way to work. Bombay's famed - rather, infamous - red light area is a couple of kilometers from my flat.

But after the first half an hour, the characters seemed rather flat to me. The one whose motivations were easiest to understand was the drug peddler and addict Chillum (played brilliantly by a disconcertingly young Raghubir Yadav). Krishna himself: why was he so adamant on going back home when it's obvious even his mother didn't really care for him? How does he retain a moral compass of any kind - as he obviously seems to, but what's his source of strength? Is he in love with the 16 year old victim of sex trafficking or does he feel sorry for her? (How can an eight year old - he can't be much older -- fall in love?) What exactly does he eat, apart from the tea and drugs we see? What does he do when it rains?

But mostly, my dissatisfaction was with how little we get to know about the women and girls. Rekha remains a stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold. How does she retain her moral compass? Why does she show compassion, strength, honesty when no one around her seems to? Why does Nair perpetuate the Exceptional Woman trope?

Why does Soolasaal (Sweet Sixteen) never get a voice or a name? Okay, I get it, it emphasizes her lack of agency. But Rekha doesn't have much agency either. And is she really so stupid as to think the pimp/goon Baba (played by Nana Patekar at his most understated and menacing) will rescue her? Has she given up dreams of going back home? Was she unhappy at home? Does she wonder whether giving in would make her life easier, instead of fighting sex slavery all the way?

Why do we never get to know? Why is Krishna the one we're supposed to feel most sorry for? Why do the women not offer friendship or solidarity to each other (except Rekha to her daughter Manju)?

I also found it frustrating, that much of the evil in the movie seems to stem from Baba. He seemed like a supervillain, omnipotent, the source of all troubles for Krishna and the few people he has grown to love. This detracted from the fact that it's the whole system, all of society, that's failed Krishna and Manju and Rekha and Chillum. Baba is but one cog in the wheel.

And why, after giving us the hope of an unrealistic but vindicating ending, does the movie end with a deus ex machina scene, a Ganapati procession that separates our two remaining protagonists, Rekha and Krishna, who seem to be escaping towards some sort of life together? Showing hopelessness would have been realistic; showing some sort of revenge and escape would be a relief. Giving us the latter and then taking it away in the next scene seems like a cheap trick.

If this reads like I hated the movie: I didn't. I was just disappointed because it could have been so much more.

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