Director Atul Sabharwal, whose documentary about the shoe trade in Agra is set for a release, talks about what prompted him to explore the subject.
The phrase ‘revisiting your roots’ means different things to different people. But for Atul Sabharwal, who marked his Bollywood directorial debut with Aurangzeb (2013), going home meant looking at Agra, his hometown’s indigenous shoe industry through a different lens — for his upcoming documentary, In Their Shoes. Here, the director talks about his new work and how it altered his view about film-making.
How did the idea of the documentary strike you?
It is a documentary that I wanted to make since 2010, but it was only in 2013 that I started work on it. It is about people who are involved in the shoe trade in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. It’s relevant because of the government policies that we are facing today, especially with the ‘Make in India’ programme as a context. I am involved in it as a producer, director and a son. Primarily, it started with me wanting to ask my father why he pushed me out of the family business, which was shoe-making.
Most directors first try making a short film or documentary before working on a feature film. It was different in your case.
I did a short film first called Midnight Lost And Found (2008). Then, of course, I didn’t plan that my first directorial project on a commercial scale would be a television show (Powder), although my focus was to make a feature film. Similarly, I didn’t plan this documentary; there was an urge to do this to figure out how an industry, which I’ve seen while growing up, has changed.
Why did you not choose to go into the shoe trade?
My first love has always been movies. The most comfortable thing would have been to join the shoe trade, but I was pushed away from the easy path by my father. After I finished my schooling, I told him that I was keen on joining the business. Instead of that, he encouraged me to join his CA’s firm as I was pursuing commerce. Six months down the line, they asked me to appear for the CA foundation exam. Soon, I moved to Delhi, but eventually realised my passion for film-making.
What were the challenges of making the documentary?
They were personal in nature. Asking my father about his trade was challenging.
What are the troubles that the industry is currently facing?
The best of the leather is exported. Also, being an old industry, it is not organised well monetarily. People who are working on a small scale want to keep it that way as they don’t want to get into trouble with the excise department, plus, the corruption doesn’t help. Post liberalisation, Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme (VDIS) was introduced to dissuade corruption. But that just got worse as now, a larger sum is involved than before. Also, competition is harder as foreign players had entered the market.
How did people who have seen you since childhood react to you following them with a camera?
The familiarity helped them to adapt being in front of the camera. Also, through electronic news, people are now used to the idea of a camera tracking them.
How did the film enrich your style of film-making?
The film has matured me as a film-maker. I have gone and fetched the smallest of things, hunted for a poster designer, and even bargained fees as we just had a five-member crew.