Krishna, a 10-year old boy, is abandoned by the travelling circus he works for and comes to Bombay, dreaming of making 500 rupees to take home to his mother in the village.
Once in the city, he is immediately surrounded by its madness and cacophony; policemen, brothels, traffic, madmen, middlemen, the trading of drugs and flesh, impossible movie fantasies and everywhere, children like himself surviving and succumbing to the appetite of the city.
Krishna begins to work at the bottom of the street hierarchy and becomes Chaipau, or One Who Delivers Tea and Bread. In the process of his tea delivery he meets characters that will ultimately change his life: Chillum, a 25-year-old spirited veteran of the streets who earns his living selling drugs for Baba; the mercurial "bossman" of the red-light area, Baba lives with Rekha, a strong, resilient prostitute, and their 8-year-old daughter, Manju.
Into this world enters Solasaal, or Sweet Sixteen, a rebellious young Nepalese girl who has been forcibly brought to Bombay to be sold as a virgin-prostitute. Chaipau unwittingly acts as a catalyst in their lives until their stories coalesce into a surprising and climatic end.
Salaam Bombay! is a fiction film unique in many ways. Unlike the norm in Indian movies, it is a film that eschews studios and sets, using the streets, railway, platforms, brothels and the alleys of Bombay's underworld as its canvas. It presents a Bombay yet unseen to a wider public; a portrait of a city that is all around, yet until now unpenetrable.
(From the official press booklet)