Boot Polish (1954)

When I reviewed Les Quatre Cents Coups a couple of weeks back, I was mentally riffling through the list of good films with child protagonists that I’d seen. I couldn’t, sadly, think of many. There were some—The Night of the Hunter, Bhai-Bahen, Bandish, Do Kaliyaan, for instance—in which children played an important part. But these were either not really films about children, or they were films about stylized children: little adults, really, or oversized toddlers.

Then I saw Kaphal – Wild Berries, made by blog reader, fellow blogger and film maker Batul Mukhtiar (aka Banno), and thought: yes, this is what a good film about children should be like. (Here, on my website, is a review of Kaphal). I also remembered, then, that Banno had once recommended a film about children.  The Raj Kapoor production, Boot Polish, which she’d reviewed on her blog, and which I’d never got around to watching. If someone who could make such a lovely film about children could recommend a film, that film would be worth watching.

So here we are. And, thank you, Banno.

Rattan Kumar and Naaz in Boot PolishBoot Polish begins on a dark night in a scruffy neighbourhood. A social worker, carrying a tiny girl and leading along a slightly older boy, asks for directions to the house of a certain Kamla. He discovers that Kamla’s hut is locked—she isn’t at home.

He cannot wait; he must hurry back to help in countering an epidemic of cholera (in which these children’s mother has perished) so he leaves the children on Kamla’s doorstep, with a letter addressed to Kamla, and some money pressed into the boy’s hand. [Rather irresponsible, this. Surely he could have found some adult to hand the kids over to?]

A social worker leaves two toddlers at a house
An adult soon shows up. This is the one-legged bootlegger, John (David Abraham, who got a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role), who immediately takes to the children. He’s sitting with them when Kamla (Chand Burque) arrives. She’s a shrew, and when John gives her the letter the little boy’s been clutching, she’s not at all happy to discover that she had been given charge of these two children.
It turns out that Kamla (who’s a hooker) is the children’s chachi—her long-dead husband was the elder brother of the kids’ father. The father is in prison, so, as the children’s [presumably] only living relative, Kamla is now their guardian.

John tries to reason with Kamla
From the way she treats them, these poor kids might just have been better off left to themselves. After having yelled at John for daring to show some sympathy towards the two little tykes, she shoos him away and drags the children inside.
The next we see, Kamla is standing at a street corner and teaching the little ones how to beg. They (especially the littler one) are obviously very distressed, but they have no option. Kamla’s like a steamroller.

Kamla teaches the children to beg
The scene shifts to a few years later. The older child, the boy, is now Bhola (Rattan Kumar); his little sister is Belu (Naaz, who got top-billing in the credits). And they are—as one would expect—still begging. Not at street corners any more, but on the local trains. They’ve pretty much perfected their technique—a combination of downright whiny persistence, some attempt at entertaining people by singing, and some pretence at being blind or mute or otherwise disabled.

Bhola and Belu, begging on the train
Bhola and Belu don’t get much for their efforts, and all of what they get is swiftly snatched away by Kamla. The children, though, aren’t fools. While travelling (ticketless, of course) on the trains, they’ve seen how the boot polish wallahs, who shine people’s shoes for a couple of annas, always make money. Not only is this a more surefire way of earning, it’s less humiliating too (an interesting insight into children here: Bhola and Belu are small, but that doesn’t mean they have no dignity at all).

Bhola realises a bitter truth
Somewhere along the line, Bhola makes up his mind: as soon as he’s saved up about a rupee and a half, he’ll buy two tins of boot polish—one black, one red—and a shoe brush. And then he’ll polish shoes for a living. He’s already started saving up, along with Belu’s help. Everyday, they keep a small amount of their day’s earnings in a tiny cloth bag, which they hide in a hole under a rock.

Taking stock of their cache
It’s hard work, it takes excruciatingly long, and it has its attendant hazards. A slimy neighbour, Chitku, spots Bhola and Belu while they’re busy counting their savings, and he tries—in their absence—to steal the children’s money. Kamla, ever spiteful and cruel, is always badgering them about why they’re bringing home so little in the way of earnings.

Kamla, the shrew
And even when they do finally manage to scrape together enough to buy the boot polish kit, it’s to discover they’re a few paise short. Thankfully, John Chacha, pretending to be taken in by a long story about how Bhola and Belu can help him sprout hair on his bald pate, gives them the money they need. They buy the shoe brush, the two colours of boot polish—and they’re ready to start. Bhola and Belu are very pleased with themselves, and John Chacha is just as proud and happy as them.

John Chacha helps Bhola and Belu
This is just the start, though. No matter how good their intentions, poor Belu and Bhola have not the faintest idea of how to go about shining shoes. They end up ruining people’s shoes (putting regular polish on suede shoes, for example), or smudging people’s socks and trousers, and ending up not just not getting any money for their labours, but also getting whacked by irate customers.

John Chacha, thankfully, is there to help, to bolster their courage and to give them some handy tips on how to shine shoes properly. The next day, Bhola and Belu make more money than they could have imagined. The local creep, Chitku, who’s leching after Kamla, discovers that these two have left off begging and threatens to tell Kamla. And Belu and Bhola, fully aware of what Kamla’s reaction will be, promise to give Chitku a daily bribe of 4 annas to keep his mouth shut.

Chitku learns the truth - and has to be bribed
All well? For the time being—a very short time. Because within the same day that Bhola and Belu bring home their first substantial earnings, disaster strikes. Before heading home, they stop by at John Chacha’s hut to get him to safeguard their shoe polish kit. Bhola, while leaving, mentions that they’d seen a man lolling about under a nearby bridge, sitting in the dark and raving about how he’d pay Rs 5 to anybody who brought him a bottle of tharra.

Bhola tells John Chacha of a lead
…and John Chacha, the bootlegger, knows he can’t pass up this opportunity. After all, Belu has just told him that she wants to buy Bhola a new shirt to replace his torn one. Bhola wants to buy Belu a new frock. Neither of them know that you can’t buy a frock or a shirt in 4 annas. And John Chacha has vowed to himself that he will buy them the clothes they need. Even if he must sell illegal tharra for it.

It turns out to be a trap. John Chacha arrives at the designated spot with his bottle of liquor, and the police surround him.

John Chacha gets arrested
Within moments, he’s been arrested and ends up in jail, where he meets an old friend, Pedro (Bhudo Advani) and is soon busy joking and singing. Meanwhile, outside, the monsoon arrives, and poor Belu and Bhola are hit by a deluge of troubles that eclipse all that’s gone before.

In an era where nearly all Hindi films had some element of romantic love in them—whether tragic or comic or even just-in-passing (for example, in films that focused on other issues, such as Do Bigha Zameen) Boot Polish stands out as a film with a difference. A film, not about adults who have to face difficulties in the path of happiness (whether or not true love is part of that), but about children. While Boot Polish has its adults—Kamla, John Chacha, a wealthy couple who later arrive on the scene—the real hero and heroine here are Belu and Bhola. This is their story, the story of how they make ends meet. Sometimes helped by fate or by others (mostly adults), sometimes deterred by fate and others.

Bhola and Belu, in dire straits
What I liked about this film:

Naaz as Belu. While Rattan Kumar is good, too, it is Naaz who steals the show as Belu (a role for which she won a Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival). She’s a natural, and it’s hard to accept that this little girl was only about six (or eight, nobody seems sure which) years old when she acted in Boot Polish. Not only is her acting very good, so is Belu’s character: a believable child, who fights with her older brother, tells him she’ll teach him how to polish shoes, and yet—like a real sibling—loves him enough to haul him back to his feet and encourage him when the world seems to collapse around him.

Naaz with Rattan Kumar in Boot Polish
And yet, Belu is a child. A child who, when she’s ill and hungry, forgets all about dignity and those high promises of never begging. A child, too, who is easily beaten and cowed by the nasty Kamla into doing all the housework. A child who, with the resilience of childhood, is able to push the cruelties of Kamla (and of fate) behind her and enjoy herself when she’s with Bhola and John Chacha, singing or eating ber.

Which, of course, brings us to the story (by Bhanu Pratap, who also wrote the photoplay and the dialogues) and Prakash Arora (who directed the film). Boot Polish is a touching and sad little story, but one of hope, too. And with a message: dignity is all, and the fruit of one’s labour is far better than charity for nothing.

Lastly, the songs. Boot Polish has some lovely music (composed by Shankar Jaikishan), including songs by a varied assortment of great singers: there is, for example, Talat and Asha’s beautiful Chali kaun se desh gujariya, and Manna Dey’s accomplished Lapak-jhapak tu aa re badarva. Of the other very popular songs, three in particular stand out: the ebullient Nanhe-munne bachche teri mutthi mein kya hai, Raat gayi phir din aata hai (John Chacha tum kitne acchhe) and Hum matwaale polish waale.

What I didn’t like:

Not exactly things I didn’t like, but which did make me roll my eyes a bit. There are, especially in the last half hour of the film, a series of coincidences—of nearly-crossed paths between important characters—which seemed just a little too frequent to be realistic. Also, the scenario in which Lapak-jhapak tu aa re badarva is sung was too buffoonish for my liking [a bald man, telling a bunch of bald men that the best way to make the rain come is to sing? Following it up with a performance, and that too in jail? Far-fetched, irritating, and really just an excuse for a song. It’s a lovely song, but still].

Lapak-jhapak tu aa re badarva
All said and done, though, this is one of the better child-centric films I’ve seen. It’s not perfect (a wee bit melodramatic in places), but it’s poignant, and, in some ways, inspiring, too. Not just for children, but also for those who’ve left their childhood behind.

Boot Polish, by the way, is available on Youtube, here.

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42 thoughts on “Boot Polish (1954)

  1. I have to see this one, lovely review. And a child film that all of us love – mostly the its little heroine- (although it may not be to everyone’s taste) is “The Fall”. I may have already recommended it in which case, sorry!
    Spanish ones that left a mark “The Spirit of the Bee Hive” if you can get hold of it.

    • I don’t remember having seen you mention The Fall, bawa, so that’s all right (and if a film is good, then there’s no harm in recommending it repeatedly, I think!) I must look out for it. I don’t hold out much hope for The Spirit of the Bee Hive, but will keep it in mind.

      Do watch Boot Polish, though – it’s good. And, since it’s on Youtube, easy to get hold of, too.

  2. A nice and perfectly suitable review on the eve of Children’s Day!
    Kumari Naaz experienced herself enough of the exploitation as a child artiste herself at the hands of her own parents, so I think she could portray the travails of an abused child well and naturally she had the talent as well.

    • You know, Harvey, it didn’t even strike me that Children’s Day was around the corner. It was just watching Kaphal – Wild Berries that made me think of finally watching Boot Polish. Anyway, appropriate, even if not intended!

      Yes, I was reading a write-up on Naaz’s life as a child artiste too, and was distressed to hear about how she was treated by her own mother. Sad. She had so much talent, her career could have taken a very different path if only she’d been allowed to…

  3. OK, here I come with my trivia, one of them you probably know which is that Rattan Kumar who also featured in Do Bigha Zameen, migrated to Pakistan after Boot Polish and Jagriti.
    According to what I had once read in one of Naaz’s interview., Raj Kapoor was keen to take Baby Naaz under his wing. He wanted to groom her for stardom. He wanted to send her to a finishing school in Switzerland and then launch her as a heroine. Unfortunately Naaz’s mother turned down the offer, she did not want to let go off her golden goose. While she was being groomed it would mean no films for Naaz and that the mum found unacceptable
    Long ago I had read somewhere that, originally Boot Polish did not have any songs. When Raj Kapoor saw the film which was directed by Prakash Arora, he was a bit disappointed, it was like an art film and not like a R.K.Film. He decided to add the songs and did it in such a manner that you would think the songs were meant to be there from the beginning. Now this is what I had once read, how far it is true I have no clue. But interesting isn’t it? —Shilpi

    • Where would be without the interesting anecdotes you always manage to bring to the comments section, Shilpi? Thank you so much for adding that! :-) I had known about Naaz’s mother having forced her to continue as a child actress, but I hadn’t known that RK wanted to send her to a finishing school in Switzerland. That, I think, would have been great for her in the long run. Who knows, Naaz might have become a much bigger name than she was. She certainly had the talent for it.

      I hadn’t known that Boot Polish originally didn’t have any songs. While I like the songs, I don’t think I’d really have missed them. I think the impact of the film would have been greater if there hadn’t been songs.

        • That’s an interesting parallel you’ve drawn, Shilpi. Yes, I wonder what Dimple’s career path could have been had she not chucked it all up. Considering the hit she was when she returned years later in Sagar, I would think Dimple would have been quite a sensation had she continued to work even after getting married…

  4. Thanks DO. You’ve described it so vividly. I can almost see it , and added to it are the selection of shots, especially the one where Kamla takes the hands of the little girl to teach her how to beg, are really heart breaking.
    As Harvey says, my thought as well, it’s an excellent choice just before ‘children’s day’ coming up in about 2 and a half days.
    I’ve heard about this film, and the praise for it, and Naaz’s excellent acting (she acted so well, who can forget her expressions with ‘aan milo aan milo aan sanware’ in Devdas), but then and even now I’ll keep clear of it. I’m too weak for such things.
    :-/

    • “especially the one where Kamla takes the hands of the little girl to teach her how to beg, are really heart breaking.

      That particular scene was certainly heartbreaking. Especially as the little girl was obviously too small to realise what was happening, and was actually very distressed.

      I always associate Naaz with that sweet little dialogue: “Wah! Kitna pyaara gaana hai!” (I’m paraphrasing – it may have been Kitna achcha gaana hai) in Aan milo aan milo.
      Boot Polish is sad, but it’s good, too. And Naaz’s acting – well, she’s to be seen to be believed. Sometimes I found it hard to believe that she was so small.

  5. I saw this film as a child and loved it. I wept at all the sad bits. Yes it was melodramatic at many places.

    Naaz was a very good actress. I liked her in all those sister roles she did later. Too bad she was not allowed by her mother to be groomed as a leading heroine, she was talented enough.

  6. Lovely review! Naaz depicts “Belu” so flawlessly that it is impossible to imagine another actress in her role.She indeed was precocious child.She was spot on as playing a sister in Man-Mauji(1962) and Sachaa Jhutha(1970) when she grew up.

    P.S.-David and his bald “fraternity” was quite hilarious :) and lightened the otherwise serious and poignant tone of the movie…

    • I have to admit I found David’s bald fraternity very irritating. But David himself was a gem. :-)

      It’s been a long time since I watched Manmauji, so I’ve forgotten all about Naaz’s role in that. But I remember her very well in Sachcha Jhootha – I loved her in that. And she was also good in Kaagaz ke Phool – interesting to see her character go from being a schoolgirl to a young bride in that.

  7. SPOILERS.

    To tell the truth, I love the melodrama. The song Tumahre hai tuse daya mangte hain brings a lump into my throat every time I hear it. And the penultimate scene where finally Bhola gives in to circumstances and stretches his hand before his sister is one of the most poignant moments I have ever viewed. Heartbreaking.

    (I don’t know whether SPOILERS are allowed in replies. Please remove this it they are not. My apologies).

    • “(I don’t know whether SPOILERS are allowed in replies. Please remove this it they are not. My apologies).

      No problem at all, since you’ve written ‘SPOILERS’ at the top.

      I agree, that penultimate scene is very good, especially juxtaposed against Bhola’s memories of how he had slapped Belu for the very same thing. Very touching.

    • There you go again, adding another film to my list of must-watch movies! :-) Yes, I’ve heard about The Red Balloon (also heard about The White Balloon, which my father has recommended to me), but haven’t got around to watching it yet. Thanks for giving me the link to this, AK – I will try and watch it sometime soon.

  8. Madhu,
    A good review of a good film. As Shilpi mentioned, Raj Kapoor had wanted to groom Baby Naaz and send her to Switzerland before launching her as a heroine. Unfortunately for her, her mother didn’t want to let go of the golden goose. Baby Naaz’s life was the stuff of which films were made – the exploited child star. Did you know she eventually married into the Kapoor family? Her husband is Prithviraj Kapoor’s nephew (sister’s son).

    Boot Polish was reshot completely by Raj Kapoor; apparently, he was aghast when he saw the first rushes. The credits remained as is, though.

    • Oh, I hadn’t known Subbi Raj (that was his name, right?) was Raj Kapoor’s cousin.

      And I didn’t know that RK reshot all of Boot Polish. Actually, I was surprised to find that it hadn’t been directed by him. I’d have expected an RK Production to at least have RK directing, if not acting (though of course he does have a cameo here). Any idea what was so wrong with the first rushes that made RK redo the whole thing? (I’m also wondering why RK let that happen – wouldn’t it have been easier, not to mention cheaper, to keep a firm grip on the entire production in the first place?)…

      • No, RK actually had a reputation for letting his directors have a free hand. Unlike contemporary Dilip Kumar who ghost directed many of his films, especially his own part, RK, when he came on sets was an actor. Many of his (outside) directors have mentioned how, on their sets, he was always an actor, not a director. He left himself completely in their hands. He was also known to be a completely non-interfering producer. I suppose if he trusted a chap to direct, he didn’t want to keep looking over their shoulders and tell them what to do.

        Prakash Arora had been an assistant director on Aag, Barsaat and Awara, so I suppose that is why he was given the reins. RK was known to support his crew. From what I read (and this was years ago), the film was a mess. So, when RK saw the rushes and realised he couldn’t make any difference during editing, he reshot the whole film. But he generously left the credits. Boot Polish was also meant to be RK’s first ‘songless’ venture. Which was a shock to most people since the RK banner had come to be associated with great songs. RK had to be persuaded to add them – ‘to add commercial value’ – and old hands S-J rose to the occasion. (That was something RK had mentioned in an interview once.)

        • Frankly speaking, if I’d been in Prakash Arora’s position, I’d have much rather RK corrected the credits. I’d hate to be credited with something that wasn’t actually my work.

          This sounds like an expensive way of functioning, actually… but I suppose RK could afford it. Incidentally, I noticed that RK Nayyar was one of the assistant directors for this film.

          • This sounds like an expensive way of functioning, actually… but I suppose RK could afford it.
            But producers have nothing to do with shooting the film itself, no? Other than ensuring that it doesn’t go out of budget? And Arora certainly didn’t overshoot his budget… The first time a producer ‘sees’ the film is the rushes just before editing; sometimes, just after editing. In RK’s case, he normally sat in on the editing process, and that is when he is supposed to have realised that the executing fell far short of the idea. And reshooting was expensive, certainly, but releasing the film as it was would have meant a helluva lot more losses. As it is, Boot Polish was both a critical and commercial success.
            Arora certainly never directed again.

            ps: I’m so envious that you saw Kaphal. Everytime I hear of the international film festivals in Bombay or in several parts of Kerala, I want to scream – Boston, for all its emphasis on the arts, doesn’t seem to be interested in film festivals. :(

            • I agree with what you say about the producer not having to do anything with the shooting of the film. However, I am of the opinion that if the producer is a director himself, and is going to have a say in deciding whether or not the film is ‘good enough’ and can exercise the freedom to go as far as to redo the entire thing… well, then, he should perhaps have monitored it more closely from the beginning, even if he liked to be non-interfering. It might have worked better for all concerned. Who knows.

              But, let it be. Just my opinion. And right now, I am in no mood to pick a quarrel with you because I’m feeling very benevolent towards you. You were one of those who recommended the next movie I’m reviewing. I watched it yesterday, and it was so, so good that I can forgive you anything right now, even a love for RK! :-D

              • *grin* I hope you are never in a mood to quarrel with me, Madhu! And I’m glad that a movie that I (among others) recommended was so well received. *Looking forward eagerly to see which one it is.*
                (And because you were so kind to me [on my blog], I forgive you for not liking RK as much as I do. *tongue firmly in cheek about the second part of the sentence*)

  9. I must watch Boot Polish after your wonderful review.

    Some movies that I have loved with children as main characters (besides The 400 Blows) :
    Au Revoir Mes Enfants : A poignant film about two boys in a boarding achool in France directed by Louis Malle.
    Pikoor Diary (The Diary of Pikoo) : An adult-themed movie from a child’s perspective by Satyajit Ray. He was wonderful with young kids.
    Two : Another short film about two boys – the have and the have-not – by Satyajit Ray.

    • Soumya, thank you so much for your recommendations. I love well-made films about children, so this is really helpful (especially as I haven’t seen a single one of the films you’ve suggested). May I suggest one, too? Kaphal – Wild Berries, which I’ve mentioned in the beginning of this post. A wonderful, absolutely lovely little film that I thoroughly enjoyed.

  10. Lovely review. I have seen this movie a long time back & it left me pondering over things.
    Also, I guess some of these B&W movies are far better than today’s entertainers. Do you agree?

    • Thank you so much for visiting my blog, and for commenting!

      Oh, I agree completely: a lot of B/W films are far better than what is churned out today. One does come across the occasional good film even today, but I think, overall, the films back then were just generally better, with less reliance on special effects, and more emphasis on things like story. Plus, the music was far better.

  11. Madhuji,
    Wonderful review. Since I am confined to my home, I used the opportunity to watch the film. The film is worth watching just for Baby Naaz’s performance. I enjoyed both the film and the review. Thanks

    • Thank you, Venkataramanji! I’m glad you enjoyed the film. I agree totally that the film is worth watching just for Naaz’s performance. I still find it hard to believe – even though I can see it with my own eyes – that she was so small. She puts everybody else in the shade.

  12. All this discussion about Naaz reminds me of another movie Do Phool (1958) based on Heidi. Master Romu and Naaz are the stars. One song from this movie shows how good these two were. It is a fun song “roothi jaaye re gujariya na bole re”. The music is by the great Vasant Desai.

    Late 50s or early 60s, there were children’s movies by Baal Chitra Samiti shown every Sunday at Sapru House, New Delhi. Whatever happened to them, I don’t know but they were good films.

    Another good one is Kitaab by Gulzar, but that is post 1970s.

    • That’s a sweet song! Thank you for it. And, what a coincidence. I hadn’t known about Kitaab till a few days back, when fellow blogger Anu (at Conversations Over Chai) did a post on ‘letter songs’. She included Masterji ki aayi chitthi in that – such a delightful little song. What I really liked was that it was just the right sort of nonsensical, kiddie song (not the somewhat painful preachy songs of most films that deal with children). I shall look out for the film too, thanks for the reco!

  13. was in the hospital saw so many people, children suffering. we see lyricist shailender singing here his first appearance as an actor. what i know is that the director was unhappy with constant interference of Raj kapoor. so he left the film. so Raj had to complete it. and on david he was a popular anchor. he hosted the national awards of 1966 and when he called the name of bhagat singh ji mother on stage. toh logo k aasu chlak guye.

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