Preteen brother and sister, abandoned by their father to care of an abusive prostitute aunt, survive life in an Indian squatters' camp, aided by a friendly cripple, by learning to shine shoes instead of begging.
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Toddlers Belu and Bhola share an uncertain future when their mom dies in the plague, and their dad is imprisoned. They are then left in the uncaring care of Kamla, their aunt, who moonlights as a prostitute. She is cruel,abusive and forces them to take to a life of begging on the local trains, on beaches and crowded areas in Bombay. This is how the toddlers grow up, they want to lead a respectable life, and with the help of bootlegger John, they get a shoe-shine kit and start shining shoes on busy sidewalks and railway platforms. Their circumstances face more uncertainty when Kamla finds out about their new-found profession, beats them up and throws them out of the house. They temporarily seek shelter with John, but when he is arrested, they have to fend for themselves. Things become bad to worse when Bombay enters the monsoon season, when people do not get their shoes shined; then the duo are separated - with Belu ending up with a rich family, and when she asks about Bhola, she is ... Written by
Excellent, socially aware film from classic Bollywood
This is the sort of film which shows both the strengths - and the weaknesses
of classic Bollywood cinema. Conceived and executed more often than not
with the mass audience in mind, but hoping to make some serious statements behind all the light entertainment, 'Boot Polish' suffers from being a little too long, as well as possessing an over- simplistic ending. On the plus side there is some great acting by the two young leads and some excellent social comment to be gleaned, conveyed through the fine black and white cinematography. Raj Kapoor, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, apparently saw the first cut of the project, then promptly scrapped a lot of what had been produced to start over again. His presence is perhaps most felt in some the Chaplinesque scenes and reforming sentiments which which surround Belu and John's kindly uncle (Prabhu Arora). The inherent decency of people, and the cinematic pathos of children torn from their guardians are all familiar from some of Chaplin's films.
As some critics have noted the two children, with Uncle's then John's particular insistence on the dignity of labour and disavowal of begging as a way of life, can be seen as symbolising the ambitions and hopes of Young India - which interpretation explains the somewhat naive ending of the film. Despite the distress which overtakes some of the young participants, Boot Polish ends on a note of optimism for the future, presumably echoing the Congress Party's offical line at the time. Before the two reach their just deserts however, and during their struggles to make ends meet and make their boot cleaning business work, there is a more obvious cinematic influence: that of the Italian Neo-Realists, especially Vittorio De Sica, whose own 'Shoe Shine'/'Sciuscià' had appeared in 1946.
While one or two of the songs interspersed through the film might be willingly dispensed with by modern Western audiences, there's one comic number (sung by Uncle in prison with a cell full of bald men) which is priceless and shouldn't be missed. Uncle is a convincing proseyltizer for the national Way Ahead, while a minor disreputable scoundrel in his own right. Less convincingly drawn are the parents who adopt Belu. Their all-round charitable concern reminds one of the childless couple who take Oliver Twist in off the streets, which is a form of symbolic caring rather than one dramatically fulfilling for the reader/viewer.
A word should be said about the excellent performance by Baby Naaz as the young sister Belu, in this her first appearance on screen. Although she only made a handful of films, her talent is amazing (as self aware and as talented as the young Jodie Foster IMHO) and is one of the biggest reasons to see the film.
Taken as a whole, 'Boot Polish' is very entertaining as well as being typical of the time at which it was made. If you enjoy classic Bollywood at close to its best, then this will worth looking out for. Admirers of the great Raj Kapoor will need little persuasion, but those who wish to see a great comic turn by Arora (is this really his only film?) will be advised too.
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