Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire are two films that share a similar narrative structure, are set in the same Indian location of Bombay (or the newly named Mumbai), and concern young male protagonists growing up in poverty. Both the male leads earn our sympathy as one misfortune follows another, and their need to save the object of their desire from a life of prostitution is met with difficulty of impossible odds. Despite these similarities, Nair’s and Boyle’s visions are quite different.
Salaam Bombay focuses on Krishna, a boy whose family has banished him until he can earn enough money to repay his brother for an object he destroyed. Krishna’s journey leads him to Bombay where he takes on a job delivering tea to the many dubious characters who have an ability to scheme and swindle Krishna out of money. Even Krishna’s divine name is robbed from him and replaced with Chai-pau, an identity that focuses on his position of a menial laborer or tea boy. Krishna soon meets and idolizes a young virginal girl who is being groomed as a future prostitute by pimp, Baba. Along the way, Krishna also befriends a drug addict, a young girl, and her prostitute mother. Krishna’s interactions with these helpless characters and constant financial set backs foreshadow his inability to transcend his obstacles and leave Bombay. The film’s gritty realism depicts a harsh reality for the impoverished youth of Bombay, offering little in terms of hope.
Slumdog Millionaire centers around Jamal, a boy who’s poverty-stricken lifestyle aids him in the knowledge that can possibly win him millions on a game show. Though he, too, must endure Bombay’s brutal realities, it is foreshadowed that Jamal’s story will be trace his journey from rags to riches. From the moment the “human feces-covered” Jamal gets the treasured autograph of famous Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, the audience is aware that this boy has luck on his side. This fantasy vision presented by an outsider such as Boyle, creates an “anything is possible” scenario. Jamal, like Krishna, has a need to save a young girl, though through Boyle’s humor and optimism the audience suspects a happy ending.
In addition, the style of filmmaking is very different between the two films. Salaam Bombay has a grittier veneer that seems based in neo-realism, where Slumdog Millionaire uses flashy colors and at times resembles Bollywood-style musicals. The editing of Salaam Bombay is workman like, with each edit a means to propel the narrative, yet Slumdog Millionaire uses M.T.V. style editing that juxtaposes current modern pop music like M.I.A. to excite the audience and propel the action. At times, Salaam Bombay resembled early Satyajit Ray films or even Francois Truffaut (the ending especially is reminiscent of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). Slumdog Millionaire seems like Danny Boyle took his grimy, flashy, pop culture referencing Trainspotting and moved it from Scotland to India. In the end, Salaam Bombay succeeds in creating a more realistic, hard-hitting, and harrowing film.
Though both Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire share similar themes, the director’s different visions are apparent. The flash and glittering images of “Slumdog Millionaire” acts a sugarcoated buffer for audience approval. When one compares its joyful, celebrative conclusion with that of “Salaam Bombay’s” downbeat uncertainty, one gets the impression of being duped by Slumdog Millionaire. Though the film is wonderfully crafted, Mira Nair’s vision comes across much more honest.