Sultana (Sadiya Siddiqui), a small town prostitute and her pimp Khudabaksh migrate to the metropolis bringing with them their dreams and meagre belongings. Initially she is bewildered by the crowds and pace of the city. With the help of Anwari (a madam or perhaps a witch) she learns how to find her bearings. As she further encounters the city and its inhabitants new perspectives open up - sad, comical, ironical but always mysterious. Sultana goes about her bright and artful seductions but somehow misses her targets. Her business collapses. Desperately, Khudabaksh too tries his hands at many jobs but is unsuccessful. His faith in his camera is replaced by his belief in a holy man. Sultana finds herself bereft and turns pensive. Her loneliness and despair get objectified in her desire for the 'kali salwaar' (black lower garment) that she needs to complete her black ensemble for the observance of mourning in Moharram.
One evening, as she solicits from her balcony she beckons a man. This man, Shankar (Irrfan Khan), inverts their relationship with his wit and worldly wisdom. The downtown and back streets where Sultana's story unfolds is peopled by 'characters' of varying hues, styles and make-up. One of these is Mohammad Bhai the 'Godfather' whose story converges with Sultana's though they never meet. Between all these people, goods, favours and money constantly change hands; and destinies are continuously transacted. From these skeins of chance meetings, seductive glances, elliptical encounters, graceful gestures and witticisms Kali Salwaar the film unfolds. Plot, colour, identities thicken and dissolve.
Kali Salwaar, based on the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto, marks Filmmaker Fareeda's directorial debut. An alumnus of both the Tata Institute of Social Science TISS, Mumbai from where she passed out in 1984 and the Film and Television Institute of India FTII, Pune from where she graduated with specialization in Film Direction in 1989, it has been years of hard work in getting this film across to the screen. Consciously doing away with Manto's romanticized image of being drunk and depressed and creating legendary stories of the partition, Fareeda set about creating Manto's world through his characters using a contemporary setting to let audiences relate to issues like displacement and marginalization which are very valid even today. Manto has been used as a character in the film as he flits in and out of the frame interacting with his characters. A highlight of the film are the set interiors designed by well known artist Bhupen Khakhar.
The film co-produced by Andaaz Productions and the NFDC was made on a budget of rupees 1.5 crores and merited Production Support from the Fonds Sud Cinema (The South Fund Agency of the French Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs which promotes cinema from southern continents), the Goeteborg Film Festival Fund from Sweden and the Hubert Bals Fund based in the Netherlands.
About the film Fareeda says, "Manto's short story Kali Salwaar ends on a note of silence. Then, for sometime, the two women had to be silent. The entire story resonated with this silence. And it seemed that this would lend itself to a cinematic exploration. Then the transformation of a short story into a feature length cinematic work. The short story form pares down detail to a minimum - to a clear lyrical flow. In scripting perhaps the reverse of this happened. Taking the bare outlines of the story I fleshed it out with concerns coincident or parallel to the events described in the short story. I brought it into a more contemporary canvas. I drew on other works of Manto. I also dialogued with filmmaking and filmmakers who have stayed with me through the years."
The colour choreography took some time to evolve. Broadly speaking the movement is from a seduction of colour to Black. Sultana's costuming was one component in this overall movement. Fareeda began with the folk colour schemes often carried by migrant labour moving to the city. The designing of costumes were derived from Mughal style-but carried to kitsch. This gave scope for layering and a play with contrast and tonalities. As with other elements in the film it was to impart a sense of being slightly 'off time.'
According to Fareeda, "Many of Bhupen Khakhar's paintings show ordinary people carrying an impenetrable sense of space about them. The colours dense and loud come together in exciting ways. Urban spaces are created with plastic pinks, sticky greens, infinite blues. The intersection of this with the narrative space desired for the film seemed promising. Bhupen generously consented and we worked on the set together. He also painted other motifs on the wall. "
Fareeda told, "The dialogues were written in English and then rewritten in Hindi. The rewriting was done by a group of professionals. Each of who delighted in language and commercial Hindi cinema. The attempt was to imbue it with the wit, liveliness and unspoken pain of the streets but avoiding the popular notion of Bambaiya Bhasha popularized by the commercial films. Ravikant, Arun, Praveen, Prabhat, and Sanjeev worked out a first draft and Rajesh polished it and bought into it nuances of Urdu poetry. Woven into the film is a metaphysics intimately associated with the Urdu language-a dark journey beyond organized religion but very much of this world."
The film is located in the working class areas of Bombay. Sultana's fate is echoed in the lifeless chimneys and jobless workers. As also in the pulsating markets where the energies of those who labour with their bodies constantly give life and rejuvenate that which is beaten down. The chawls, streets and alleys are mostly in the vicinity of the old Textile Mills (many of them now shut down).Fareeda says." We also shot in the actual red-light areas and other locations controlled by the Mafia. It was important for the actors to figure out the degree of stylization for her/ him self to be able to tread between naturalism and a control so as to provide each 'character' with a mist enabling a double take on what was obviously seen."
Kali Salwaar has been shown in many international film festivals, including the Indian Panorama in the International Film Festival of India, Goteborg film festival, Rotterdam International film festival (2003) and Durban International Film festival (2003). It was nominated for 'Best Film' at the Bogota film festival.
Thomas Voorter, the Public Relations Officer of Asian Studies at the University of Amsterdam and Marjike de Vos, who has studied theatre research at the University of Amsterdam, reviewed the film positively. They said, "This film is an intimate study of urban life, focusing on details in the way people are dressed, the decoration of the rooms, the colours, the smells, and takes time to consider the personal thoughts of people on the street. It is rich in symbolism, for example in the way in which Hindu art is placed in Muslim culture, such as the tree (Krishna’s tree, the philosophical ‘Self’, which balances internal nature with the outside world) painted on the wall of Sultana’s apartment. In a daring shot Sultana prepares herself for Moharram, slowly pouring warm water over her naked back and touching her face with the soft satin of the black scarf."
They said, "Fareeda captures the poetics of life, in which ornate Urdu and street slang alternate, friendship dispels loneliness, hope turns into despair, yet poverty is realistically harsh.She succeeds in weaving genres and symbols into the texture of life in such a way that the film is not only about Indian Muslim culture, but about a community of people living around a Mumbai bazaar, who share to a certain extent their memories, symbols, emotions, and desires."