Bollywood Rewind | Boot Polish: From childhood soaked in poverty
In this weekly column, we revisit the nuggets of the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week we are revisiting the 1954 Boot Polish version.
Poverty is a recurring topic in many popular Hindi films of the 1950s. Lack of opportunity, unemployment and the great divide between haves and have-nots are so distinct in films from this era that they can often become overwhelming. . So when you watch a movie like Boot Polish, which tells the story of two orphans who struggle to make ends meet, it touches you deeply and has an impact on your outlook. Directed by Prakash Arora and produced by Raj Kapoor, the 1954 film is directed by two outstanding child actors – Rattan Kumar and Baby Naaz.
Boot Polish opens with two orphaned siblings, left in the care of their evil aunt who puts them to work in their early years. All they have known is poverty and the only thing they have been trained for is begging. Bhola, played by Rattan Kumar, and Belu, played by Naaz, beg pennies all day long just so they can hand the money over to their aunt, who feeds them when she wants and hits them when she wants. Yet Bhola knows that there is more to life than depending on the mercy of others. When he watches a shoe shiner on a train, he longs to be that guy.
When a fake astrologer denounces Bhola by saying that he will be rubbing his shoes all his life, Bhola takes it as a promising prediction and walks out with a leap in his footsteps. In what can be considered a unique approach to the subject, Bhola and Belu are unaware of their poverty as it is the life they have always seen. They find humor in their daily chores, which gives this film a much-needed break. Their silly shenanigans make you smile even as you realize they’re going to bed hungry. Their only savior is lover John Chacha, played by David, a bootlegger by profession who fuels their dream of a “Boot Polish” business and fills them with vigor and integrity.
As expected, things are heading south fairly quickly for Bhola and Belu. The rains have hit and their business is going badly. With John Chacha in prison, they have no choice but to beg again in the streets. It is this part of the film that touches your heart. In one significant scene, Belu is shivering with fever and hasn’t had a bite in days, she’s ready to beg again but Bhola is now a boy with principles that will never stoop so low again. When a crying Belu says “Kya Karoon? Mujhe bhookh lag hi jaati hai (What should I do? I’m hungry) ”, we can’t help but think about how we take our privileges for granted. Her declining physical condition makes you swallow tears as she takes refuge by the side of the road.
Boot Polish is quite in sync with the other productions of Raj Kapoor of the time. Much like in Awara and Shree 420, the Creator looks at poverty through the lens of an ordinary man who cannot escape the cycle. As Boot Polish ends on a promising and hopeful note, it challenges the government of a newly independent India that consistently fails its masses.
Boot Polish was directed by Prakash Arora, with a script by Bhanu Pratap, but over the years many reports have suggested that it was actually producer Raj Kapoor who directed the film. In a 2013 interview with rediff.com, Raj’s son, veteran actor Rishi Kapoor, explicitly stated that Raj “made the starter polish on his own.” He shared: “My father reoriented the film because he was not happy with the way it was playing. In two months, he shot the film on his own.
Boot Polish might not be as popular as some of Raj Kapoor’s other films like Shree 420 and Sangam, but it certainly deserves a lot more attention. The work of Baby Naaz and Rattan Kumar was widely applauded at the time and even though 67 years have passed, their performance still holds the film. Baby Naaz even received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival for his work.
Raj Kapoor is said to have brought in the musical director duo Shankar Jaikishan to add that extra spice to the film and they did so by creating the iconic song “Nanhe Munhe Bashche Teri Muththi Mein Kya Hai” which is still a classic.
With nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes of autonomy, Boot Polish remains for the most part engaging. The part where David’s character is in prison seems a bit out of place and even the song in that part doesn’t really fit into the movie really well.
Boot Polish is one of the most valuable films on Hindi cinema that examines how being born into poverty, when you have no control over your situation, can destroy your chances of having a fulfilling life. When worrying about the next meal doesn’t allow you to sleep in peace, how are you supposed to think about the future?
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Boot Polish is broadcast on ZEE5 and ShemarooMe.
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