Salaam Bombay tea boy to TV help - Mira Nair’s child star earns living as floor assistant

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  • Published 1.05.12

Bangalore, April 30: At 11, he was a star. Now 36, he is a faceless floor assistant.

The kid who ran away to Mumbai nearly 25 years ago and became an overnight celebrity as the country’s most famous tea boy has moved on.

Shafiq Syed, who played “Chaipau” in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, no longer serves tea. He works as an assistant for production units churning out Kannada television soaps.

At least that’s better than driving an auto-rickshaw or being a light boy in movie units.

“What else can I do?” he shrugs. “I have a family to take care of.”

Back then in 1987, he didn’t have such worries.

Syed still remembers the day he ran away with some friends “just to see if what we saw in Hindi movies were right”.

A quirk of fate landed him the role that won him the President’s medal for best child actor.

In Mumbai, Syed lived on the pavements near Churchgate railway station, a wide-eyed kid absorbing the buzz of the city that never sleeps.

One day a lady approached him. “She promised Rs 20 a day and a full meal for lunch if we went for an acting workshop. While the other guys (who I was with) ran away fearing a racket, I took a chance since there was nothing to lose,” he says.

After a month of acting classes, he was picked to play Krishna, the lead character in Salaam Bombay, perhaps the first film about India’s street children.

Syed played a bubbly lad, who nurses a crush on a young sex worker while eking out a living as a tea boy in Mumbai’s red light district.

Like Syed, Krishna too had run away to Mumbai.

Instant stardom followed as the boy from a Bangalore slum shone as “Chaipau”, the tea boy at Grant Road Tea Stall.

“I was with all kinds of great people in the industry and then I won the national award (for best child artiste),” he recalls.

The film ends on a sombre note with Chaipau returning to the grimy underbelly of Bombay (since renamed Mumbai).

In real life too, fate flattered to deceive.

Today, the wait for success continues for Syed, the original “slum dog” of Indian celluloid.

After working with Nair and her international production team, Syed starred in Patang (1994), directed by Gautam Ghosh. “That was it. My life just returned to where I left it when I took that train to Bombay,” he says.

“But I don’t want to give up,” he says, as he sets out for work with a Kannada TV serial unit.

The father of four kids — three sons and a daughter — lives with his aged mother and wife some 30km into Bangalore’s suburbs and struggles to make ends meet.

He has tried everything, from driving an auto-rickshaw, earning Rs 150 a day, to being a light boy in movie units that paid Rs 200-300 for an eight-hour shift.

His wry smile can’t hide the burden of being a one-time celebrity battling to make a living. “I keep a low profile and never talk about my films,” he says, packing to leave for Chikmangalur, a hill station 225km from here. “Sometimes, I get to travel with film units whenever they shoot out of Bangalore.”

Back after two days of work with the sound recording team, Syed will be hunting for new assignments to keep his kitchen running.

His last hope is his own story that runs into 180 pages. “I have written my story and titled it ‘After Salaam Bombay’,” he says. “Hope someone will take it up for production.”