Monday Editor’s Pick: Boot Polish (1953) & Raj Kapoor

by on January 4, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Jan 7 at 6:45 & Mon Jan 9 at 7:45 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


January 6-16, MoMA showcases the Indian actor, director, and mogul in “Raj Kapoor and he Golden Age of Indian Cinema.” New 35mm prints have been struck of Kapoor’s eight most key films. Here is your chance to see the Bollywood canon. This one is a personal favorite of David Bordwell.


Hopefully more material forthcoming, as press for the series rolls in. Otherwise, this is a major Hungry Young Film Critic Alert: the interweb is just itching for some more Kappor commentary!


Elliott Stein in his essay “Raj Kapoor: The Showman Auteur of Indian Cinema”:

Kapoor’s singular and gargantuan talent subsumes a variety of influences and affinities—[Charles] Chaplin, Frank Capra, Orson Welles—with even a touch of Russ Meyer apparent in the later work. At times, his oeuvre recalls the work of a 19th-century European literary giant whose sympathy for the underdog, protean activity, inexhaustible energy and penchant for excess earned him fame and a national reputation as early in life as Kapoor. Yes, Raj Kapoor is—to a degree—the Victor Hugo of Indian cinema.


A compilation reel of Kapoor’s great musical moments:


And Stein on Boot Polish, re-printed in the Pacific Film Archive program notes:

[This] tale of Bombay slum life…is one of the great tear-jerkers. It is in there with Stella Dallas and Les Miserables. Kapoor squeezes every drop out of every scene, and then a few more for good measure. The film’s oddly lyric neorealism underlies an inordinate string of vicissitudes worthy of Victor Hugo. Ratan Kumar and seven-year-old Baby Naaz are remarkable in the leading roles of a destitute brother and sister, as is David Abraham as their friend John Chacha, an eccentric bootlegger. (The recently deceased David, a Jewish character comedian, was one of the glories of Indian cinema.) The monsoon song performed in jail by David with his fellow prisoners is a highlight; another is a rousing production number with a chorus line of slum kids, ‘A New Dawn Will Come’…. [Although the credits read ‘produced by Raj Kapoor, directed by Prakash Arora’, the film] bears the stamp of Raj Kapoor’s authorship from beginning to end. Most of it was shot, or reshot, by him.


Amitabh Bachchan in the Essential Guide to Bollywood:

A year ahead of Satyajit Ray’s Bengali masterpiece Panther Panchali, producer Kapoor brought the new-realism of Vittorio de Sica into mainstream Hindi cinema. The film’s credibility emanates from the utterly natural performances by the two little actors.Kapoor’s cameo appearance on a train, where the two kids look at the blue-eyed passenger and wonder if he is the Raj Kapoor, reconfirmed the film’s neo-realistic credentials and also evinced a smiling curiosity out of the audience.

Academic’s Corner: Pankaj Jain sees how the film ethically measures up to Slumdog Millionaire, for the journal Visual Anthropology.

Howard Schumann for CineScene:

Boot Polish is a pure example of Hindi cinema, now commonly known as “Bollywood”. It is filled with songs and dances, stylized artifice, idealized characters, myriad sub-plots, and an inspiring message. Though technically not a musical, the joyous and hypnotic songs on the soundtrack 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. The story, however, 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. It won the 1953/54 Filmfare awards (India’s version of the Oscars) for best picture, best supporting actor, and best cinematography.


Some may dismiss the picture as melodrama, but I find it a life-affirming and rich cinematic experience. The love of the children for each other is very real, and their struggle for survival and social respectability is profoundly touching. Filled with positive energy and the “heroic face of innocence,” Boot Polish is now more than ever one of my all time favorite films.



Noah Cowan, original programmer of the series, which started at TIFF, in his series notes:

Kapoor’s early films focus on India’s new, frequently hostile urban environments—which had been swelled to the breaking point by the massive influx of post-Partition refugees—and are infused with a mild but deeply felt Nehruvian socialism that was largely the product of Kapoor’s long association with celebrated left-wing writer K.A. Abbas. (Their collaboration has frequently been compared to that between Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, who are prominently featured this season in our programme devoted to Italian neorealism; see page 40.) For Wimal Dissanayake and Malti Sahai, authors of Raj Kapoor: Harmony of Discourses, Kapoor helped enable Indian society to embrace the disorienting changes of the twentieth century. Rejecting both the dogma of Communism and xenophobic traditionalism, Kapoor believed that certain Western ideas could be useful tools for bettering the lives of India’s poorest citizens. All of his films contain clearly enunciated statements to this end—including a belief in nurture over nature in defiance of caste-based logic, suggestions for how to increase the self-respect of the poor, and a questioning of punya, the idea of “merit” associated with giving alms to beggars—that are repeated and reinforced through traditional visual symbolism, music, dialogue and (Vedic) religious references. By couching these Western-inspired concepts in traditional forms, Kapoor demystified and normalized them for his domestic audience. In the view of Dissanayake and Sahai, Kapoor’s films have had a discernible effect on Indian mass consciousness and are prime examples of the power of film to not only recount history, but to reshape it.
Kapoor himself saw his impact in more modest terms. He saw his contribution as taking the latent romanticism of pre-war Indian commercial cinema and making it frank, intense and personal, creating a new idiom for the expression of emotion that had little place in traditional Indian literature and drama; his frequent use of the love triangle, for example, proved especially influential for later Indian films. That outsized romanticism found its greatest expression in the legendary song-and-dance sequences that appear in all of his films, and that have since become the stumbling block for many Western viewers in their first encounters with Bollywood. Unlike comparable sequences in Hollywood musicals, which prepare the audience for their segue out of “reality,” the musical numbers in Bollywood films tend to arrive without warning, are unapologetically removed from the narrative and contain music that can be a hurdle for even the most well-intentioned world music enthusiast.
Kapoor’s films not only allow us to see where these sequences originated, but to better understand and appreciate their unique synthesis of the Hollywood musical and Indian folk-musical theatre traditions. Kapoor was himself a talented musician with a strong desire to marry traditional Indian musical forms with new imports from the West. (He adeptly played on the cross-cultural significance of certain instruments such as the tambourine, which symbolizes the onset of love in Indian folklore and signals a kind of wild abandon in American rock ’n’ roll; Kapoor draws on both meanings.) His legendary collaborators Shankar-Jaikishen shared this belief, and between them they created some of the most famous and popular songs ever written—Mao Tse-tung himself was known to hum a few bars of “Awaara Hum” over breakfast!



Howard Thompson for the New York Times:

But it is two young faces, in an Indian-made film called “Boot Polish” that are really going to haunt American audience.For this drama of two starving urchins in contemporary Bombay is a lovely picture, a sweet picture. There are few from anywhere, let alone the land of the Ganges. Watching the professional unfolding of this saddening little tale, and the acting of two extraordinary children named Rattan Kumar and Baby Naaz, one can only wonder what the Indian studios have been up to the last decade. For “Boot Polish” marks that country’s first English – titled, commercial showing here, at least in the mid-town area, since the unsensational “Shakuntala,” back in 1947. Movies in India have come a long way.


For the lonely love of the two children for each other and the agony of their separation, beautifully conveyed by the young actors and Prakash Arora, their director, comes across with uncanny exactitude. Glum as it may sound, the picture has welcome humor, especially toward the beginning, with Miss Kumar chirping away like a contented magpie while briskly ruining one pair of shoes after the other. One viewer loved this little lady and does not care who knows it. Technically the import is spic and span, nicely photographed in a teeming metropolis, and shrewdly upholstered, when needed, with exotic, native music, as the incidents flow evenly. The adults are almost as good as the children, including Mr. Kapoor himself, as the vagrant (and his own protesting mouthpiece), and the four other uncredited principals. If this Indian present makes a final, rather illogical lunge toward sentimentality instead of tragedy, it still holds its sweetness and power.


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