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.
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
"There is no difficulty such that you cannot overcome it and no height such that you cannot reach it; you must keep trying." Raj Kapoor...
I saw Boot Polish once when I was a student in Michigan many years ago and I never forgot it. I was thrilled to be able to see it again this week in its new DVD release by Yash Raj Films, and I loved it just as much if not more.
Boot Polish is a pure example of Hindi cinema (now called "Bollywood"). It is filled with songs and dances, stylized artifice, idealized characters, myriad sub-plots, and an inspiring message. Though not a musical, the joyous and hypnotic songs are interwoven into the plot in a way that both enhances the drama and reminds you that it is "also" a movie.
The direction is attributed to Prakash Arora, assistant to the "great showman" Raj Kapoor; however, the story is that Kapoor took one look at the rush print and realized he had made a mistake in assigning it to Arora, then re-shot the entire film himself. The film won the 1953/54 Filmfare awards (India's version of the Oscars) for best picture, best supporting actor, and best cinematography.
The story is about the relationship between a ten-year old boy, Bhola (Rhatan Kumar) and his seven-year old sister Belu (Baby Naaz). The children are without parents. They live in a slum area in Bombay with Kamla, a cold and unloving relative, and must beg to stay alive. Bhola and Belu undergo verbal and physical abuse from Kamla when they don't bring home enough money each day. Their only friend is a neighbor, John Chacha (David Ebrahim), who operates a bootlegging business outside the law.
John Chacha provides the kids with the emotional warmth they need and tells them not to beg but to find some work. "Starve, die, but don't beg. Do something with your two hands", he says and instructs them in the art of polishing shoes. Bhola and Belu gradually become proficient in their trade and eke out a living, refusing to take alms. The monsoon rains come, however, and their business suffers. In addition, John's arrest takes from them the little love and comfort they had. Beg or die is the question that the children must now face.
Some may dismiss Boot Polish as melodrama but, for me, it is a life affirming and immensely rich cinematic experience. The love of the children for each other is very real, and their struggle for survival and social respectability is deeply moving. Filled with positive energy and the "heroic face of innocence", Boot Polish is now more than ever one of my all time favorite films.
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