An authentic tale of Bombay street life. Director Mara Nair shows great promise

``Salaam Bombay!'' is one of the season's most talked-about movies, and it's not hard to tell why. It has plenty of well-timed story twists and colorful characterizations. And running just beneath them, there's a sense of everyday reality - specifically Indian, yet never merely ``exotic'' in its effect - that gives the film a realistic atmosphere few movies have rivaled lately. This isn't to compare ``Salaam Bombay!'' with documentaries on Indian life, even though filmmaker Mira Nair's background is in nonfiction cinema. To immerse oneself in the unimpeded realities of India, a documentary like Robert Gardner's harrowing ``Forest of Bliss'' is still the most effective route to choose.

Yet the fictional ``Salaam Bombay!'' has a sense of authenticity that is no accident. It stems partly from Ms. Nair's own background - although she's now based in New York, she grew up not far from from Calcutta. And it stems from decisions she made early in the filmmaking process. Discussing her movie at the recent Telluride Film Festival, she told me she had to give credibility a high priority, because the main audience she had in mind was not American but Indian.

``The pulse of the movie is Indian,'' she said, adding that ``even though the film is so utterly crafted and scripted,'' she tried to enhance its realism by turning to intuition as well as technique. ``I trusted my intuition all the time,'' she said. ``Not just with the acting, ... but also with the crowds and the policemen and the money and the schedules.'' She also used devices often associated with documentary film: casting real street children in leading roles, shooting with hidden cameras, and returning to the same location day after day so local residents would learn to ignore the filmmakers and behave naturally.

The hero of ``Salaam Bombay!'' is Chaipau, who is 10 years old and has a big problem: His parents have kicked him out of their home, and he's forced to struggle for a living in the poverty-ridden Bombay streets. He is soon drawn into a sleazy environment of criminals and other outcasts, but he always keeps a grip on his spirit, meeting fierce challenges with cleverness and resilience.

The story of ``Salaam Bombay!'' isn't as tough-minded as the film's other elements might lead one to expect, considering that recent years have brought movies about young people that are substantially more shocking. The best example is ``Pixote,'' the searing Brazilian movie about a boy struggling to survive on his own. There's also been ``Christiane F.,'' a West German drama about drugs and other urban ills.

``Salaam Bombay!'' puts its hero into situations as tough as these movies offer, but it also lets him cope with them too easily. There's a scene when Chaipau gets thrown in jail, for instance. Sure enough, it's an awful place. But when he decides to escape, there's little more in his way than some strands of barbed wire draped around a handily placed ladder. Before you know it, he's on the road again.

Moments like these make ``Salaam Bombay!'' appear softer and less uncompromising than it might have been, taking away from its impact. There's no quarreling with its terrific acting, though, or with its generally vivid portrait of an Indian city. ``Salaam Bombay!'' isn't flawless, but it's a sure-fire hit with a compassionate theme. And its director is an important new talent who deserves to be watched carefully.

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