Sole searching: Documentary on Agra shoe industry is a must watch
Atul Sabharwal's "In Their Shoes" is truly personal as it makes the viewer live the joys, despair and hope of reliving the glory days of the very lives it explores.
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Some of most enduring documentary films in the recent past such as Roger & Me (1989) or Capturing the Friedmans (2003) have stemmed of personal reasons. When then primarily a journalist Roger Moore saw how auto giant General Motors’ decision to shut down its plant in Flint, Michigan, impacted 30,000 lives including not only hundreds of people he knew but also his own father’s, he decided to document his search for General Motors CEO Roger Smith in order to ask him the reason for the shutdown. The result, Roger & Me, wasn’t just a mere documentary film but a testimony of changing times and government policies. Similarly director Andrew Jarecki was making a film about children’s birthday party entertainers and learnt that the brother and father of one of the clowns he interviewed, David Friedman, had pled guilty to child sexual abuse and in turn ended up making a documentary, Capturing the Friedmans, that focused on them.
Making documentary films for personal reasons isn’t as popular a tool in India as it’s elsewhere in the world, yet, but this fairly new peg for non-fiction filmmaking in India is bound to get a big boost from the recently released In Their Shoes (2015). Directed by Atul Sabharwal, best known as the writer-director of TV series Powder (2010) and the urban thriller Aurangzeb (2013), the documentary has two distinctive yet well blended parallel threads running along its 93 minutes runtime that result in an engrossing tale about Agra’s centuries old shoe industry and the filmmaker’s own relationship with the city. The film explores the history of the shoe industry in Agra since inception till the present times through the filmmaker’s desire to understand why his father, who hailed from a family that closely witnessed the said trade for over half a century, didn’t want him to join the family business.
Although Agra has always been famous for its shoe industry, many don’t know about the accidental origins of its second most famous feature. Starting with how the discarded leather bags, which transported heeng or asafoetida during the Mughal times, were picked up and turned into footwear, In Their Shoes follows the journey of Agra’s relationship with leather through people whose families were amongst the first shoemakers of Agra. Narrating the historical account through a multitude of voices ranging from owners, artisans who still follow the traditional handmade methods to make shoes, suppliers of materials, designers, and exporters Sabharwal brings to life a wonderful and at times, poignant story. Having witnessed the early years, the glory days and the subsequent fall of Agra’s iconic leather trade, Sabharwal’s father, who still runs a materials business in the city, wanted a different future for his son and this parallel subtext is echoed by many through In Their Shoes. Sabharwal’s uses interesting tools such as archival footage from the BBC, Films Divisions newsreels, and others to juxtapose how global changes such as India’s strategic partnership with the former USSR, the trade union unrest in the Eastern Bloc in late 1980s to the fall of communism impacted thousands of lives involved in the shoe business in Agra. Sabharwal even includes a homage of sorts to one of India’s best films ever, Garm Hawa (1974), where we see Balraj Sahani’s Mirza sahab delivering shoes as one of the old trader talks how it used to be in the olden days.
Like his previous works Atul Sabharwal creates a curious relationship between the characters that tell the story and their landscape. Most of the places of shoe trade in Agra had been neglected as far as infrastructure is concerned and this had led to a downfall. In Their Shoes’ imagery contrasts this with the emotions of the those involved in the trade and the manner in which things such as government of India’s decision to lift the curb on export of leather, a fact that greatly contributed to the dumping of Chinese synthetic foam that had practically changed the game by replacing leather, and the result is a film that is captivating not just on a narrative level but also on visually. Shifting gears from writing and directing fiction to an unscripted narrative where many a times people didn’t want to speak to him, Sabharwal makes In Their Shoes truly personal by making the viewer live the joys, the despair and the hope of reliving the glory days of the very lives it documents.