Thirty years ago, Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! won accolades, including a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in 1989, for its unflinching depiction of life on Mumbai's mean streets. The plot, featuring the city's notorious red-light district of Falkland Road, also stood out for its use of real street kids to play themselves.
That said, Salaam Bombay! also made some local audiences squeamish for turning the gaze on India's unending cycle of poverty. Historically, it is the realistic depiction of hardship in India that has been a fault line in Indian cinema.
While Bollywood has never shied away from using the nation’s poor to set its cash registers ringing at the box office, it has always done so with rose-tinted lenses. The sort of realism that Nair brought to the touchy subject belonged more to the tradition of “parallel cinema”, a homegrown brand of arthouse films.
Prior to Mira Nair's iconic film, the only other director to bring such international acclaim to Indian cinema was Satyajit Ray, whose directorial debut Pather Panchali (1955) won 11 awards across the globe, including Best Human Document at the 1956 Cannes film festival.
Pather Panchali struck a chord with cinephiles for its bucolic simplicity, cinematography, and, like Salaam Bombay!, its effective use of non-actors. It achieved classic status because it was the simple story of an impecunious family in rural Bengal seen from the perspective of a child. Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning author of Midnight's Children, cited it as "one of the great portraits of childhood".
Yet, despite such significant acclaim, not many on home turf were happy with Ray's depiction of poverty. Ironically, one of his staunchest critics turned out to be Nargis Dutt, who became a household name in Bollywood with Mother India (1957).
Her film told the story of an impoverished single mother who raises two sons despite many hardships. In 1980, Dutt, who was also a Member of Parliament, launched a scathing attack on the filmmaker, claiming that Ray's Apu trilogy (three films – Pather Panchali, Aparajito and The World Of Apu, which follow the story of a character named Apu) was a cause celebre simply because "people there [the West] want to see India in an abject condition."
Similarly, shortly after the release of Salaam Bombay!, the film adaptation of Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy (1992), set in the squalid slum of Pilkhana, off the Howrah railway station in Kolkata, raised a hornet's nest, almost bringing the shooting of the film to a halt in 1991.
Unlike Mumbai – both Salaam Bombay! and Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008) by Danny Boyle were shot in the metropolis without much ado – Communist-run Kolkata was up in arms about the depiction of their city as a hell hole. Condemned by leftists, the 13-week shooting schedule of the film was marred by street demonstrations and there was even a firebomb attack on its sets.
Patrick Swayze was seen on the sets of this film, posing with co-stars Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, two of parallel cinema's most celebrated icons. Unfortunately, Swazye's arthouse debut – close on the heels of international blockbusters Dirty Dancing (1987) and Ghost (1990) – didn't do too well at the box office, despite its modest budget.
By categorising these films as parallel cinema, the Indian public had inadvertently outsourced the moral responsibility of showcasing the nation’s human condition to a realm outside the mainstream.
Like Salaam Bombay! and City of Joy, this genre of cinema produced many state-subsidised gems that touched upon India's gut-wrenching inequities – from tribal oppression and famine to misogyny. In fact, many consider Pather Panchali to be one of the first films from the genre.
However, Nair, Roland Joffe and Ray were essentially “outsiders” in Bollywood – the nationalist nerve was limited in exposure. Since this kind of cinema was largely confined to Doordarshan, socialist India’s only TV channel until 1991, and to limited-screen releases, these films never really threatened the idea of India. Ironically, these films, focusing on India’s decrepit quarters, were largely consumed by its elite.
While Bollywood can never be accused of turning its gaze away from the nation’s dispossessed, it is guilty of glossing over the harsh realities it chose to exploit. Poverty was cool, so long as it was complemented with song and dance, not slums and rats.
It is, for example, the dexterity with which Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan could portray a suave smuggler and an angst-ridden coal miner that made him a zillionaire. And he played many a poor character. When Bachchan broke into the scene in the mid-1970s, India was justifiably angry. Independence had been won, but disillusionment was rife – and with three wars behind it, the nation was fatigued.
To make matters worse, in 1975, its feisty prime minister Indira Gandhi did away with the constitution and declared a state of emergency after a slew of corruption charges. Activists were jailed, protesters went missing, a brutal campaign to sterilise poor Indian men led to 6.2 million sterilisations – 15 times the number of people neutered by the Nazis.
By representing the angst of its middle class and poor, Bachchan became Bollywood’s “Angry Young Man”. It also helped Bachchan that his roots came from the intractably poor Gangetic state of Uttar Pradesh, a part of India that has historically supplied hapless migrants to its cities and to the former British empire.
After all, Indian-origin writer and Nobel Prize-winning laureate, V S Naipaul, who penned stinging critiques on the young nation with An Area of Darkness (1964) and A Wounded Civilisation (1977), hailed from the same quarter of the country: in the 1880s, his grandparents had been plucked from eastern Uttar Pradesh's famished district of Gorakhpur as girmitiyas (indentured labourers) to toil on Trinidad's sugar plantations.
His non-fiction has also, like Ray’s cinema, been the subject of much debate, with some Indian intellectuals deriding him as a mouthpiece for Britain’s fading colonial glory. Unlike Naipaul though, Bachchan found love across all strata of Indian society.
Coincidentally, the actor, who made his millions in India's socialist era by portraying the average, angst-ridden Indian Joe, also went bankrupt in the 1990s, precisely at the juncture that the country decided to do away with socialism, in 1991. His last big hit of the 1990s was Hum, after which he declared bankruptcy, only to emerge as a game show host in 2000 with Kaun Banega Crorepati? (based on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?).
Realism came to Bollywood the hard way in the 1990s, via Mumbai’s underworld. For a film industry that had largely ignored the uglier truths of the Maximum City, reality was not a slap in the face; it was a bullet in the head.
The decade faced a wave of mafia-commissioned assassinations, abductions and extortion demands: rich builders in the land-strapped island and loaded Bollywood producers became easy prey.
In 1997, film producer Gulshan Kumar was shot dead outside a temple in the Bollywood neighbourhood of Juhu, a northern suburb of Mumbai. Quick to exploit this menace was director Ram Gopal Varma and protege Anurag Kashyap – the duo that created Satya (1998). The film stood out for its gritty portrait of the lives of Mumbai's gangsters and its cinematic rendition of the city's underbelly.
Kashyap, like Naipaul, also hails from Uttar Pradesh’s impoverished district of Gorakhpur. His brand of films, with its brash mofussil lingo and occasionally tiresome macho bonding, reflect these dim leanings.
That said, it is the newer generation of Bollywood directors that has taken its cue from the realism of the late-1990s and crafted some unforgettable gems. Titli (2014), directed by Kanu Behl, for instance, traces the violent life of a low middle-class criminal family in New Delhi with award-winning panache.
Titli, like Salaam Bombay! and Pather Panchali, was showcased in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes Film Festival. Curiously, this dark tale was also referred to as a "horror film" by a film reviewer. Perhaps what she meant to say was that it was a great film about the horrifying reality of India's criminally poor populace on the outskirts of its bustling cities.