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Monday, September 20, 2021

Bollywood Rewind | Boot Polish: Of childhood that’s drenched in poverty

Starring Rattan Kumar, Baby Naaz and David, Prakash Arora's 1954 film Boot Polish examines the condition of children who are born into poverty.

Written by Sampada Sharma | New Delhi |
Updated: July 31, 2021 10:28:52 pm
boot polishBollywood Rewind revisits Prakash Arora's Boot POlish.

In this weekly column, we revisit gems from the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week, we revisit the 1954 release Boot Polish.

Poverty is a recurring subject in many popular Hindi films from the 1950s. The lack of opportunities, unemployment, and the large divide between the haves and the have-nots is so distinct in the films of this era that it can often get overwhelming. So when one watches a film like Boot Polish, which tells the story of two orphans struggling to make ends meet, it moves you so deeply and impacts your outlook. Directed by Prakash Arora, and produced by Raj Kapoor, the 1954 film is lead by two exceptional 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 ever known is poverty and the only thing they have received training for is begging. Bhola, played by Rattan Kumar, and Belu, played by Naaz, beg for pennies all day long just so they can hand over the money to their aunt, who feeds them when she wants and hits them when she feels like it. Yet, Bhola knows there is more to life than depending on other people’s mercy. When he looks at a shoe-shine in a train, he aspires to be that guy.

boot polish movie Bhola aims to be a shoe-shine so he can rightfully ask for the money he deserves.

When a bogus astrologer tells off Bhola by saying he will be scrubbing shoes all his life, Bhola takes it as a promising prediction and walks out with a skip in his step. In what can be seen as a unique take on the subject, Bhola and Belu aren’t aware of their poverty because that’s the life they have always seen. They find humour in their daily chores which gives this film a much-needed breather. Their silly shenanigans make you smile even as you realise that they’ll go to bed hungry. Their only saviour is the loving John Chacha, played by David, a bootlegger by profession who fuels their dream of a ‘Boot Polish’ business and fills them with vigour and integrity.

As expected, things go south for Bhola and Belu pretty fast. Rains hit and their business goes for a toss. With John Chacha in prison, they have no option but to beg on the streets again. It is this portion of the film that clinches at your heartstrings. In a significant scene, Belu is shivering with fever and hasn’t had a morsel for days, she is ready to beg again but Bhola is now a boy with principles who will never stoop that low again. When a crying Belu says “Kya karoon? Mujhe bhookh lag hi jaati hai (What do I do? I feel hungry),” one can’t help but think of how we take our privileges for granted. Her diminishing physical state makes you gulp fight tears as she takes shelter on the edge of the road.

Boot Polish is quite in sync with other Raj Kapoor productions of the time. Much like in Awara and Shree 420, the maker examines poverty through the lens of a common man who cannot escape the cycle. While Boot Polish ends on a promising, hopeful note, it questions the government of a newly independent India that is consistently failing its masses.

boot polish Baby Naaz was honoured with a special award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance. (Photo: Express Archives)

Boot Polish was directed by Prakash Arora, with a script by Bhanu Pratap but over the years, many reports have suggested that it was, in fact, producer Raj Kapoor who directed the film. In an interview with rediff.com in 2013, Raj’s son, veteran actor Rishi Kapoor had explicitly said that Raj “made Boot Polish all by himself.” He had shared, “My father re-directed the film because he was not happy with the way it was coming along. In two months, he shot the film all by himself.”

Boot Polish might not be as popular as some of the other Raj Kapoor 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 was even honoured with a Special Mention award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work.

It is said that Raj Kapoor brought in music director duo Shankar Jaikishan to add that extra pizzazz to the film and they did so by creating the iconic song “Nanhe Munhe Bachche Teri Muththi Mein Kya Hai” which is still a classic.

With almost 2 hours and 20 minutes runtime, Boot Polish stays engaging for the most part. The portion where David’s character is in prison feels a little out of place and even the song in this portion doesn’t really fit well into the film.

Boot Polish is one of the most treasured films on Hindi cinema that examines how being born in poverty, when one has no control over their circumstances, can destroy their chances of having a fulfilling life. When the worries of the next meal won’t let one sleep in peace, how is one ever supposed to think about the future?

Bollywood Rewind | Do Bigha Zamin | Devdas | Baiju Bawra | Shree 420 | Pyaasa | CID | Madhumati | Naya Daur | Awara | Sharada | Do Aankhen Barah Haath | Bandini | Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam

Boot Polish is streaming on ZEE5 and ShemarooMe.

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