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.
Boot 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?]
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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].
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.