Top positive review
A Bleak Child’s Eye View
on 27 September 2017
Indian film-maker Mira Nair’s 1988 debut fiction feature, telling a tale of the loss of childhood innocence on the corrupt, poverty-stricken streets of Bombay, remains an authentic and powerful piece of cinema. Very much in evidence here is Nair’s previous experience in documentary film-making, as she and cinematographer Sandi Sissel evocatively convey the bustling milieu of the populous Indian city, together with all its contradictions in terms of wealth inequality and a seeming absence of moral values. Against the backdrop of the film’s undoubted qualities of verisimilitude, Nair and regular co-writer Sooni Taraporevala have carved out a subtly engaging, and increasingly powerful, narrative, in the process marshalling a cast of first-time child actors to impressive effect. Nair and Taraporevala also do not pull any punches in terms of the depiction of the film’s (and city’s) less salubrious themes, in particular, around child trafficking and prostitution, and drug addiction.
One of the central themes here – frequently depicted in cinema elsewhere – is the corrupting influence of the 'big city’ (with its supposedly 'more civilised’ values) vs. that of rural life. Here, it is a rural life that Shafiq Syed’s (11-year old) young innocent Krishna (aka Chaipau), has been forced to leave behind in order to make good on a family debt (of 500 rupees), resulting in the boy finding himself suffering a pauper’s existence (as a teaboy) in the big city, in amongst fellow street urchins (mature beyond their years) and (more worryingly) pimps, junkies, brothel madams and child prostitutes. Of course, the sordid nature of goings-on here is made all the more effective by being witnessed (predominantly) from a child’s viewpoint – a young girl being forced to wait in the next room whilst her prostitute mother meets a client, the virginity of a new ‘recruit’ being highly prized, etc. A brilliant (and devastating) sequence is that where the camera lingers on a young girl who has 'pilfered’ a biscuit, a 'treat’ to stave off hunger, nervously looking around, anticipating the consequences should she be discovered. All of Nair’s cast impress here, particularly Syed and Nana Patekar as the creepily charismatic pimp and ‘family man’, Baba. The friendship between Chaipau and Raghuvir Yadav’s 'jack-the-lad’ and junkie, Chillum, is also particularly touching, whilst the stark contrast between Chaipau’s meagre existence and the make-believe world of Bollywood is repeatedly drawn by Nair.
In terms of comparator films, I’m sure there are many. Satyajit Ray’s renowned Apu Trilogy is an obvious reference point, whilst both Bunuel’s Los Olvidados and Fernando Meirelles’ more recent City of God provide even more extreme examples of the corrupting influence of money and power on impressionable, impoverished youth. That Nair’s film can be mentioned in this sort of company is high praise indeed.