``I really, firmly believe that truth is stranger than fiction,'' says filmmaker Mira Nair, whose new movie is an unusual combination of fictional and real-life elements. It's called ``Salaam Bombay!'' and it's an international film in the fullest sense - shot in Bombay by an Indian-born director who discovered filmmaking while at Harvard University and now lives in New York. Nominally an Indian production, it was financed with money from British and French television as well as the Indian Film Development Corporation and Miss Nair's own Indian-American production company.
The picture began its American theatrical run on Sunday, but it's already a hit on the festival circuit - winning prizes in Cannes and Montreal, and scoring big with audiences at the noncompetitive Telluride and New York filmfests. I interviewed Miss Nair between screenings in Telluride, where the fresh Rocky Mountain breezes seemed as congenial to her as the bustle she's used to in Bombay and Manhattan.
``Salaam Bombay!'' tells the story of Chaipau, a 10-year-old boy who is forced to struggle for a living in the teeming streets of Bombay after his parents oust him from their home. It's not a gentle film, as Chaipau gets drawn into a sordid world of hustlers, prostitutes, and other low-life characters.
He never loses his spirit, though, and ultimately the film can be seen as an affirmation of his resilience and resourcefulness.
``I'm really interested in people living on the edge,'' says Miss Nair, whose previous films are documentaries on such topics as street life in Old Delhi and the use of high-tech medical procedures to accommodate traditional Indian preferences for male children.
``I'm interested in marginal people,'' she continues in her lightly accented English, ``or people who are considered marginal. I think that's because ... I'm interested in capturing the complexity of people and the complexity of life.''
After making four documentaries, Nair turned to fiction because she wanted ``a lot more control over gesture and drama and faces'' in her work.
At the same time, however, she was determined ``to create the unpredictability of life,'' especially ``the gray area that makes us all what we are, and not the `blacks and whites' and `goods and bads' that cinema is often relegated to. `Salaam Bombay!' was an effort to have that control, and yet be open to the inspiration of documentary.''
Nair came up with the idea for ``Salaam Bombay!'' about five years ago.
``I was just struck by the spirit of the kids I used to see on every street corner,'' she recalls. ``I knew that if I were ever to make this film, I would use the kids from the street. It couldn't be made with any other children - primarily because the inspiration that came from them was their spirit, their will to live in a situation where they had been given nothing but life. They really lived it, with a flamboyance that was very striking to me.
``Also, their faces and bodies were a kind of map of the journey that they had traveled,'' Nair adds. ``They had wisdom and childlikeness at the same time.''
The project started when two of Nair's assistants ``walked the streets of the inner city, and spoke to a lot of children in the centers where they hang out - on bridges and platforms and so forth. [The assistants] were both women, and they said we were going to do a workshop on [children's] lives. It was purposely vague. They kept going back to the kids, and the kids got intrigued.''
The workshop took place in a small, inner-city church. About 130 children showed up on the first day, and the filmmakers chose 24 of them - aged 7 to 18 - for the activity. ``We worked with those 24 for seven weeks, six days a week,'' Nair reports. ``It was very disciplined, and yet a lot of fun. ... Basically it was an amalgamation of physical exercise, mime, dance, and improvisation.''
Later in the workshop, ``as we got close to each other,'' attention turned to ``themes that were important to the children - be it running away, or sex, or gangs, or violence, or your first day in Bombay. The kids really got used to us, and us to them.''
Not until the fourth week did Nair bring up the film itself. ``We brought in a video camera and spoke about the film and the story,'' she says. ``And we introduced the idea of un-teaching them their notions of acting, which are totally fed to them by Indian cinema - an overblown, declamatory style.''
Working with the children was ``a very careful and slow process,'' but it was also a successful one. ``By the beginning of shooting, the children were the least of my problems!'' Nair says, smiling.
Nair's sense of commitment to the children of ``Salaam Bombay!'' runs very deep - to the point where she was reluctant to ``abandon'' them after filming was completed. ``We know this is a real responsibility,'' she says, speaking of her decision to draw street children into a specialized - and temporary - artistic project.
``My assistant director, who's a child psychologist, has worked with the kids full-time since shooting,'' she continues. ``Our attitude was not to give them any illusions: that we were going to be their mothers forever, or anything of the sort. Our whole attitude was to meet them halfway and help them realize their own self-worth and dignity - not to `reform' them, or change them, or get them off the street, or any of that artificial stuff, because it really was too short a term. We said we realized they had come so far, and [after filming was over] we wanted to help them create opportunities they want for themselves. Some kids knew what they wanted: Some are now in school; some have gone home to their villages; some are doing jobs. And some are still on the streets.''
Nair is taking her responsibility a big step further, as well - committing money from the film itself to the well-being of Bombay's youngsters. ``Now that the film is successful and there's a possibility we can make money from it,'' she explains, ``we've set up a Salaam Bombay Trust, which is going to create a learning center for street children. It will open in November in Bombay and also in Delhi. We're using benefits and premi`eres in India to finance this. So it'll be totally self-financed by the movie, and I hope it'll be permanent!''
A rare thing in the commercialized movie world, this willingness to make an altruistic commitment springs from the same interest and concern that led Nair to conceive ``Salaam Bombay!'' in the first place.
``It's amazing how many kids like this exist,'' she says thoughtfully. ``They've become almost invisible in India; when you see so many, they become invisible. It's like the way materialism - how much people want to own - is invisible in the United States. It's so normal, so natural, that you stop thinking how absurd it is!''