In Their Shoes (documentary)
Direction: Atul Sabharwal
There are a few directors in the Hindi film industry with documentaries to their credit. They’ve mostly come before their big, commercial movies. Writer-director Atul Sabharwal has done it the other way around. And it seems to help. Though his best-known work, the Arjun Kapoor-starrer, Aurangzeb (2013), is hardly what you’d call landmark cinema, the commercial project has brought his documentary some attention. Far from that clichéd double-role-crime/family drama, In Their Shoes is a stellar, heartfelt effort.
On the face of it, it’s a documentary about the shoe trade in Agra. But it is much more, really. At a personal level, for the director, is a story of self-discovery. Sabharwal’s family is part of the old-school shoe industry of the city; his dad, in fact, is not only his window to this world, but also the thread that holds the 90-minute film together. It is through his eyes Sabharwal revisits the lanes of Agra, the tiny shops, the industry he could – in an alternate present – easily have been a part of. It is Sabharwal Sr who introduces him to the local traders, to the shop-owners – "baccha documentary bana raha hai…poochh lo uncle se jo poochhna hai (my son’s making a documentary…ask uncle what you’d like)," – and who, eventually, in a touching, uncomfortable moment, tells him why he never wanted his son to join the business. In that – in those moments when he asks his dad the tough questions – it is universal. It is the story of every son who must have had an awkward chat with dad at some point; the story of every kid who left small-town India in search of brighter prospects in big cities.
But that’s not to trivialise the content. The research is thorough, the analysis sharp and clear. Though his dad speaks a fair bit, Sabharwal remains objective. He interviews not just the small traders, craftsmen, wholesalers, but also bigger manufacturers and exporters; not only the people who’ve been stuck in time, unable to cope with the pressures of large-scale, machine-led manufacturing, but also those who’ve benefited from it. But most importantly, he’s reflected on larger politics and economic decisions at work – of liberalisation, export of raw material, and the government’s focus on quick, foreign exchange (by exporting raw leather) that has hurt domestic manufacturers (in various industries). “We will remain a country that exports raw material, not finished goods,” says an industrialist. It’s an exaggerated statement. But Sabharwal raises the point – or gives it a platform, at least – at a time when ‘Make in India’ is all the rage.
As he tracks how Agra’s shoe trade came to be, he also provides a glimpse into the past – of the city’s heyday as the capital of the Mughal Empire, and of the Partition, which saw a lot of people move from Pakistan and set up shop here – and he does it, thankfully, sans clichéd shots of the Taj Mahal. In fact, the Taj appears just twice, once in the background when Yamuna’s pollution is being talked about; and once in an old, black-and-white photo of Sabharwal’s father, presumably with him on his lap.
The one criticism, however, could be regarding the length of the film. Sabharwal invests a large part of the first one hour in establishing milieu and the small traders, before even revealing the existence of big manufacturers, and the tussle between the two. The larger debates and politics then come in only in the last half hour. Yet, In Their Shoes is a rewarding, and enlightening experience, for the larger statements it is able to make; beyond the scope of Agra, beyond the debate of leather-versus-cheap foam; and large, tube-lit factories with hundreds of workers versus little, pitch-dark rooms that need light-bulbs during the day – the ‘factories’ of the small craftsmen.