In Their Shoes is heartwarming, says Sukanya Verma.
Going into the history of a trade is fascinating.
Almost every memorable success story starts with nothing before prospering to leave behind a rich legacy.
But what if you are not a willing inheritor?
Filmmaker Atul Sabharwal chronicles the landmark shoe industry of Agra through its best and worst times, whilst offering a poignant, personal portrait of artisans and entrepreneurs through his earnest documentary, In Their Shoes.
Over their nostalgic accounts, he reflects on his own decision to not join the family business.
He was helped by the fact that his father Om Prakash, also contributing to the documentary, never urged him to either.
Maybe he believed every man ought to find his own path and fit in his own shoes.
This is not the Agra of Taj Mahal and other stunning architectural motifs but an industrial town where colour-stripped walls, dimly lit rooms and narrow lanes lined by an endless row of leather and shoes occupy most frames and men at work.
These men are not accustomed to tell their tale.
The slight surprise in their eyes and bemused smiles cannot quite fathom Sabharwal’s curiosity.
It’s not a glamorous profession like showbiz. But as they speak, inhibitions gone, they share vignettes soaked in pride and nostalgia.
Of how leather used for wrapping asafoetida would go to waste until ingenious minds thought of using it to make shoes instead.
Of traders who moved to India after Partition and set up shoe businesses in Hing Ki Mandi and Saddar Bhatti.
Of days when shoes were sold to dealers in a large basket perched on the head like a scene from M S Sathyu’s recently re-released Garm Hava (they feature the scene in the documentary too).
Of impromptu dal-baati/thandaai sessions at Halwai Ki Bagichi on lighter work days when damp leather would take time to dry.
Of bonhomie between colleagues as well as the irrelevance of religion and caste differences in matters of trade.
Grievances are touched upon as well.
In Their Shoes examine the impact of political decisions on the industry, especially on the small-scale businessmen even as well-heeled exporters make the most of it.
Other than the liberalisation policy there is, of course, China playing the bad guy for doling out cheap synthetic substitutes like foam.
At some point, Sabharwal gets too attached to these stories and assumes everyone shares not just his enthusiasm but understanding of the field.
The sluggish pace, lacklustre camerawork and technical overload trickling past a series of interviews does wear one out.
But In Their Shoes eventually overcomes such momentary lapses when it begins to dig deeper into their case.
The jaded, resigned and, in case of few, resentful disposition of so many crushed, compromised professional dreams echoes the reality of millions in our country.
One of them admits he studied law to boost his knowledge but “baithna toh dukaan pe hi tha,” while a pair of foreign-educated software engineer brothers painfully acknowledge the tough transition of adjusting to a small town’s pace and giving their dad a helping hand in the family business.
“Someone has to do it,” shrugs Sabharwal’s father in a tone that’s neither guilt tripping nor regretful.
He’s an admirable man, another thing this documentary tells.
His son, who directed Aurangzeb for Yash Raj Films, keeps the narrative as straight as possible but there is one lovely Shakti reference that communicates his deep affection for his father.
I came out feeling quite emotional from In Their Shoes.
I may not believe in vocational legacy but I do respect what these people stand for -- hope and quality.