Director : Atul Sabharwal
Agra is famous for quite a few things. The Taj Mahal. The beyond-belief sugary-sweet petha, and the hugely over-rated daal-moth. And shoes. Atul Sabharwal, who has done television and film fiction (Powder and Aurangzeb, respectively) diversifies his portfolio with an informative documentary on the shoe-making tradition of Agra, with In Their Shoes.
It is a personal journey for the filmmaker. His father, a veteran of the trade, leads his son around the narrow galis housing the hundreds of kaarigars who use their hands to fashion the stuff we wear on our feet. Or, shall we say, used to, because those numbers are dwindling. Because the shoe industry in Agra is not what it used to be: on the one hand are the big-money exporters, and on the other, handed-down government policies, with shrinking space left for the individual craftsman (no women, or at least they were not visible in the film), who gloried in creating hand-made perfection and making customers feel good.
You can’t talk about the shoe industry in Agra, which at one point was the one-stop destination for all shoe retailers around the country (this is where they fetched up for the latest and the best maal), without going back in time. Many people involved in the shoe business came from what is now Pakistan, and settled in Agra, hung out their shingles in Hing Ki Mandi and adjoining bazaars, and flourished.
I have a personal connect with the town, too. Close family ties keeps it in my mind even if I don’t visit as often as I want to. But the memory of taking a rickshaw down the narrow galis of Kinari Bazaar with its rows and rows of colourful chappal and joota shops is still strong. Aunts and cousins would bargain ruthlessly and cheerfully and return with several pairs.
Sabharwal’s film goes behind the scenes with empathy and a sense of history: in a way, leather and shoes created a pathway into the town, as well as a pattern for its future. During the last few decades, stricter pollution laws caused tanneries to close or shift as the effluents that flowed into the Jamuna had gone up alarmingly. The government has created a space for the industry a little off town now, but everyone — from the big guys to the smallest trader — is having to contend with Chinese substitutes and price rise.
A scene from the classic Garam Hawa, interspersed in the film, shows Balraj Sahni doing what scores of individual shoe-makers used to do, back in the day: carry baskets overflowing with jootas to the suppliers who would then sell them further to retailers. Liberalisation came as both boon and bane: exporting units began gearing towards the West, and the domestic trade went into a decline.
Sabharwal’s father, like many people in the film, did not want his children to join the family business. Sabharwal asks why, and receives, in answer, a line that resonates: if they (the children, now grown) will do better in other spheres, why look back? And leaves the question, lingering in the leather-scented air: who, after me, in my shoes?