In Mumbai, public slumber is one way the urban poor reclaim space
“As in all societies based on financial apartheid—one wants the poor near at hand as servants but far away as humans.” —Arjun Appadurai, Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai
Often while shooting her film Salaam Bombay!, director Mira Nair would have to shake her actors awake just moments before taking the pivotal morning shots. Apparently, real slumber was required for certain scenes where the street kids of Mumbai are framed in their morning states as they stretch, squint and yawn, emerging from their unhomed rest anew. Crust around the eyes, a certain level of sleep deprivation, and real lethargy was, for Nair, essential to accompany the rumpled texture of their clothes or the hollow daze in their expressions.
This is one of the many ways in which Nair crafted the universe of Salaam Bombay!, her love note of sorts to the street lives and homeless youth in the red-light districts of Mumbai. These neighborhoods, populated by displaced children, informal wage laborers, sex-workers, pimps and madams of brothels, provide her with a way to depict the discarded of an urbanizing India.
Over a span of 55 days in 90 locations, Nair shot Salaam Bombay! guerrilla-style on the streets of Mumbai, an ambitious feat to pursue in a city that Nair’s biographer John Kenneth Muir writes could “eat a film crew whole.” She and her crew interviewed over 200 street children and then cast characters from a chosen few. Using nonprofessional actors meant relying on their personal experiences of public rest and their selective trysts with the nighttime in red-light districts.
Directed in 1988, her film captures the life of Krishna (Shafiq Syed), a 10-year-old boy sent out of his village by his mother to raise 500 rupees to recover the cost of a motorcycle he set on fire out of anger at his brother. Krishna, like so many displaced migrant children, ends up in bustling Mumbai. There he befriends an older street youth called Chillum (Raghubir Yadav), who is addicted to garad or “brown sugar,” a colloquial term for heroin. The film explores Krishna’s transition from rural migrant into his new identity of Chai-pau (literally, “Tea-Bread”), an informal wage laborer working for a tea shop at the local railway station. Besides giving him a new name, his profession gives him access to a vibrant community in and around the bustee where he spends his days and tries to sleep.
Screenwriter Sooni Taraporewala deftly contextualizes each character’s relationships with streethood, labor, and homelessness alongside their everyday practices of sleeping, eating, drinking, and existing as bodies in public, illegalized from the start by their reclamation of public property. As members of a community of squatters and marginalized urban youth, homeless children approach sleep in ways that require their bodies to be their “sole forms of secure housing,” as Arjun Appadurai writes in his essay “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millenial Mumbai.” Public sleeping can be seen as one way that people who are denied access to spaces of their own resist and subvert state-sanctioned limitations of private housing. In Salaam Bombay!, the quest for sleep dramatizes the radical challenge to urban space that public communal slumber represents.
In one night scene, Krishna and Chillum sit under the dark umbrella of a tree in a Muslim graveyard, laughing and conversing their hashish-induced high away. Chillum smokes his “brown sugar” as Krishna sits struck, transfixed by the sight of him inhaling and exhaling in measured breaths. From the screenplay:
Chillum: This is the granddaddy of all poisons. Sometimes my heart tells me that I should swallow rat poison and sleep for the last time. All the end.
Krishna: Why don’t you give it up?
Chillum: You won’t understand. (sings) Once it gets you, it won’t let go. Not until you do. Not until you’re dead.
Krishna and Chillum have to seek sleep outside the surveillance of the state. In their cemetery, they find a liminal space where sleep impersonates death, and death becomes the description of permanent, “lifelong” sleep. They rest and converse amid sounds of birds, perhaps dawn crows. Chillum sits with his back against the tree, Krishna with his head resting on Chillum’s lap. Their arms are in careless embrace. At one point, Krishna says to Chillum, “You’re showing me paradise,” as the sky looms starry and still before his eyes.
With screeching crickets heard in the distance and beaming lanterns gently positioned on the ground, the nighttime sounds mingle with their intimate laughter. Chillum hums Willie Nelson’s Pistol Packin’ Mama as he helps Krishna navigate the cemetery. The soundtrack of homeless sleep that homes public space is crucial to understanding its charge, as it frames the joy, comfort, and ownership of public space these youths’ bodies exact in this scene. Without foregrounding pleasure and bodily comfort, one cannot understand homeless rest as radical. What emerges in the film is a moving illustration of how two boys without homes actively use their bodies as bearers of sleep and agents of comfort.
Perhaps unwittingly, their quest for sleep poses a challenge to state discourses of housing in 1980s Mumbai, a time, Appadurai claims, that saw a “dematerialization” of its economy unfolding alongside a mobilization of Mumbai’s Hindu right wing in its aim to ethnically cleanse the street space of religious minorities, many of them representing a demographic of the insecurely housed poor. In a climate torn by a genocidal wiping of impoverished presence from public spaces, sleeping on unclaimed ground becomes an act of resistance. Squatters insist on their rights to comfort, pleasure and restful sleep, even at serious risk. In her report The Case of Mumbai, India, the architect Neelima Risbud notes that since the late 1980s, “the most insecure group” in terms of access to housing or tenure are recently migrated “pavement dwellers” in “un-notified slums and squatter settlements.” A result of the wave of communalization and gentrification of inner-city land, squatter presence in neighborhoods became either threats to or opportunities for erasure by the state.
The neoliberal definition of tenure entitles the physical comfort of home ownership to “holding” land by sovereign right, a process constructed against the figure of the street youth. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme in Mumbai, Risbud notes, particularly excluded certain slums on and near government land (bustees and the surrounding environs of the film’s diegetic world are government-owned sites), denying them rights to tenure security. Sleeping visibly, motionlessly, dangerously, despite the state's gazes, often in front of state gazes, plays a critical role in warping and transforming the sociocultural geographies of squatters in Mumbai of the ’80s and ’90s.
Shiv Sena, the xenophobic Hindu right-wing fascist organization only exacerbated the gentrification processes of Mumbai’s slum areas. Heavily funded and supported by local capitalists, Shiv Sena gradually became a strong political force from the 1960s onwards. Its reimagination of a Mumbai without Muslims continues to appeal in particular to the Marathi Hindu majority. The genocidal erasure of the Muslim minority functioned in tandem with and almost in relation to the classist erasure of Mumbai’s poor. What Appadurai describes as a “bizarre utopia of urban renewal” in Sena’s 1992 and 1993 anti-Muslim riots that left over 900 people dead is inherently mediated through the Hindu right’s complicity with the increasingly corporatized economy and a municipality that continues to criminalize homelessness in its quotidian acts of rest and sleep.
The process of religious cleansing is filtered through the delegitimization of Mumbai’s poor and vulnerable Muslims, who made up nearly 88 percent of the people living without homes, as mentioned in Arjun Sengupta, K. P. Kannan, and G. Raveendran’s article, “India’s Common People: Who Are They, How Many Are They and How Do They Live?” Mira Nair and Sooni Taraporewala’s thematic and stylistic decision to situate homeless housing claims through their protagonists’ rest in a graveyard is a still-relevant critique of this penultimate moment in postcolonial India, where homelessness is illegalized at the outset by city developers, right-wing institutions, and the attendant forces of neoliberalization. Sleeping in public becomes a way for the urban poor to embody the laws of the night, and how to get through them. Sleep on public ground becomes dissent, an exaction of a home where there is none.
Salaam Bombay!’s emergence as an independent feature, informed by Nair’s social-realist approach evoking French cinéma vérité, visually centers Mumbai’s homeless population within this historical moment and responds critically to the state’s violence against the poor. Its direct engagement with shanty communities challenges unclaimed public space and presents it as a site of sanctuary, never entirely safe but still somewhat secure through its collective nature. It also bridges important relationships with the lives of pavement-dwelling and squatting communities on the ground. Non-professional actors from slum communities of Mumbai represent the very populations that are implicated in the state’s invisibilization of the downtrodden.
The success of Salaam Bombay! gives insight into how this venture does not simply end at the global distribution of the film. The filmmakers’ involvement with the street children’s communities of Mumbai extend through Nair’s Salaam Balak Trust, a charitable organization that works to this day with the various street children who worked as actors in Salaam Bombay!. It fosters these youth on a consensual basis, working as support systems for those who choose to navigate street life and economy, as well as providing resources for jobs and literacy programs for youth trying to branch into careers in larger organizations past higher education.
On its release, Salaam Bombay! invited a transnational reception due to its documentary aesthetic, sending fictional portraits of urban sleep throughout the world. Its unique viewership, which took place in spaces ranging from the festival circuits of the West to more intimate, localized screenings in halls for the associated urban poor of Mumbai, enjoyed high-cultural nods for sympathetic portrayals of urban poverty while straying away from melodramatic cues, focusing almost entirely on the tactile nature and visual tonality of its subjects. As India’s second submission nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Nair’s visual language of childhood and streethood in one breath held the Indian government in a position to acknowledge this feature as a rare intervention in the field of independent, domestic, or even transnational cinema, especially with her diasporic female positionality. Despite its unprecedented dilution by hegemonic global and local structures of governance and film exhibition as simply a truth-telling, harrowing portrait of India’s poor, the essence of Salaam Bombay! lies in those illegalized youth who belong as much to Mumbai as its sheltered residents.
In her study of urban poverty in Mumbai, Risbud notices that “majority of slum dwellers identified themselves with the city rather than with their native place and plan to settle permanently in the city.” What is powerful about these claims on urban land and insistence on Mumbaikar identity is the permanence the unsettled urban poor aspire to, one which is rooted in their street-based slumber. These children, disposable in the eyes of the state, are lit up as they claim urban space as theirs, every day, all night.
The way Salaam Bombay! scans the margins of urban space at night is crucial to this claim. Cinematographer Sandi Sissel’s interrogative yet patient documentary aesthetic obsesses over Mumbai at night as a place full of both resistant and unsettling activity. In a brief tracking shot of brothels and other illegalized nighttime workplaces in Kamathipura (the slum district and location of the film), a Geeta Dutt song from the 1951 film Baazi plays in the background. The repetitive, broken recordings of 1950s Bollywood film songs shaped the radio-listening culture of Mumbai, haunting the urban sounds and sights of the 1980s and ’90s with the promises of a younger India.
The film is held up by the sleep-weakened limbs of its characters, but in Mumbai, people sleeping on the streets often hold themselves together. In the original ending written for the film, Krishna, having lost all his companions and loved ones in the city, aimlessly walks down the streets of Mumbai. Taraporewala writes, “under a bridge, there’s a long line of homeless people sleeping, and he goes down and lies next to them. There’s a close-up of him, and a hand covers him with a tattered blanket, and then the camera moves up to show him surrounded by the other sleepers and then they are enveloped by the city of Bombay.”
Rewritten due to an inadequate production budget for the previous ending, which required a slowly rising, expensive crane shot to capture the rows of sleeping homeless youth, the final cut of the film instead shows Krishna standing deserted and abandoned, in an alleyway on a sunny afternoon, playing with his toy top, the only possession he carries from his rural home. Despite the poignant texture of Nair’s replacement shot, Taraporewala’s original ending to the film resonates darkly with the political power of squatters’ sleep. She depicts Krishna as a lost, disposed, grieving street child, alienated and alone in the city, who nevertheless discovers a strange sense of communal support in the collective embrace of public sleeping. The bridge itself is a haunting location, meant only for the middle-class four-wheeler car to traverse, but under which lies a culture of squatters breathing, snoring, surviving, with “tattered blankets” and urban grief.
The original ending of the film allows a powerful reading of its subject: that public communal sleep is not simply a commonplace part of street youths’ lives, but rather a place of return for a fragmented marginalized community ritualistically performing sleep as protest, insisting on their right to an everyday human necessity which the legal structure of the city denies them. These figures come to contest public space, existing like fractures in the designations of comfort, safety and surveillance in the metropolis, mediated through historical hierarchies of caste, class, gender, religion and sexuality. Though precarious, public sleep seizes a sense of belonging. Taraporewala’s original ending to Salaam Bombay! then completes a narrative arc, revealing the street child’s feeling of being at home among peers, in liminal, subversive, and criminalized rest.
In the most perceptive moment of the film, Krishna and his friend are seen walking in the dead of night under a bridge to get Chillum’s “brown sugar” when Krishna muses: “Chillum says the souls of Bombay’s dead children wander under the bridge at night.” The ghosts of deceased homeless youth hang darkly over Salaam Bombay!. They are the backdrop to its characters’ performances of domesticity and intimacy in the same urban space that denies them legitimacy. In this one line, Krishna captures the stolen migrant rest, death and labor it takes to make a city whole. Aligning the phantoms of the sleeping, the underslept, the slept on, and the forgotten, founds the urbanity that state structures and walled institutions are built on. When bodies fall asleep collectively—organizing themselves in rows under bridges, along canals, stationed in alleyways, their lids at motionless ease—they are alive, breathing dangerously, and haunting the urban lines and angles they home, and reminding the state that they exist.