14 June 2015

Taking the shine off India

My Mumbai Mirror column this morning:
Does revisiting Raj Kapoor’s 1950s classic Boot Polish in light of Kaaka Muttai, the superb new Tamil film about two slum children, show us how little distance we have really travelled?

Boot Polish is on my mind for two reasons. One, because I only recently discovered, amid all of this year's Cannes excitement, that exactly 60 years ago, in the summer of 1955, we sent Boot Polish to Cannes to compete for the Palm d'Or. (No, it didn't win. But it did come home with a Special Distinction for the sparkling performance of one of its two child actors: Baby Naaz.) And two, because watching the lovely Kaaka Muttai (The Crow's Egg), which released across India last week with English subtitles, made me think of this much older film, also about a pair of siblings who live in a slum.
But there, it would seem, any similarity ends. Kaaka Muttai has a neat, well-defined premise that seems almost cheerful – the kids want to eat pizza. The film is witty and subtle and wants to keep things light, even as it slices sharply though the zeitgeist – while my memory of Boot Polish was of a song-filled tearjerker about the cruelty of a world in which children had to fend for themselves.

But what emerged from re-watching Boot Polish surprised me. Of course the tone is very different, but like Kaaka Muttai, the 1954 film constantly leavens pathos with humour. In a tragic opening scene, the orphaned brother and sister Bhola and Belu are abandoned at the doorstep of their vengeful aunt Kamla, who proceeds to force the hapless boy and his baby sister almost immediately into beggary. But in the next scene, we see the children, slightly older and cannier, begging on a bus, and the song they sing is impossible not to smile at:

“Dhela hi dila de baba, dhela hi dila de.
Dhela na dega, teri chori ho jayegi.
Chori jo hogi thane tu jaega,
Thane tu jaake rapat likhayega,
Itna jo karega, baba, dhela hi dila de...
Dhela na dega, teri nani mar jayegi.
Nani jo maregi Hardwar jayega...
Hardwar jaake pandon ko khilayega,
Itna jo karega, humein dhela hi dila de”.

A dhela was half a paisa, the very smallest denomination at the time. The begging song combines an appeal for “just a dhela” with a hilarious set of curses predicting the fate that will befall the person if they don't pay up, all of which would mean more money lost. So, goes the chorus, “you might as well give us a dhela”.

Later, as the wicked aunt slaps Belu around to make her perfect her “blind” beggar's chant, the little girl gets confused. She's meant to say, “Subah se bhookhi, janam se andhi”. You can't help but giggle as she says, “Subah se andhi hoon” (I've been blind since morning) and bites her tongue.

Some of the humour shines blacker than black. Such as when a nasty astrologer gleefully proclaims to Bhola (Rattan), “Tu jootiyan ragdega saari zindagi” (You'll polish shoes all your life), only to have the boy leap up in joy saying “Ab toh dhanda khoob chalega!” (Now the business is sure to run!) That polishing shoes for a living can seem like freedom is further underlined by the children's spontaneous declaration when they manage to buy a brush and polish to set up their “business”: “Aaj se Hindustan aazaad hua. Bheekh maangna bandh!” (Hindustan is now free. No more begging!)

It's not as if the film isn't melodramatic. The deeply principled Bhola might have been an inspiration for the khuddaar street urchin that most of us recognise from countless 80s and 90s films, best encapsulated by Amitabh Bachchan's “Main phenke huye paise nahi uthata” (I don't pick up money thrown at me). In Boot Polish, it is the children's one adult sympathiser, John Chacha (David), who strengthens Belu and Bhola's resolve to reject a life of beggary for one of labour: “Bheekh maangne ke liye yeh mutthi kabhi mat kholna, chahe kuchh bhi ho jaye.” (Don’t ever unclose your fist to beg, come what may.)

But as in most class-focused Hindi melodrama, the film's personalised solution for its protagonists belies the socialist optimism of its crowd scenes and anthems, like the famous “Nanhe munhe bachhe”, (Little child) which goes: “Na bhookhon ki bheed hogi, na dukhon ka raj hoga/ Badlega zamana yeh sitaron pe likha hai” (There will be no hungry throngs, nor will sorrow rule/ The tide will turn; it’s written in the stars). Writer-director Prakash Arora decides to save Belu from the fate of her companions like every popular writer before and after Dickens: via a kind, rich benefactor. And then he squeezes every ounce of tears out of the temporary contrast between the fates of Belu and Bhola: think visual matches between Belu asleep on a soft bed amid marble pillars and Bhola on the footpath. Later, as Bhola is failing to lift his coolie's load, we cut to the adult servant in Belu's new home lifting luggage: the film's turnaround even on the dignity of labour is complete (though the child-adult contrast makes it possibly justifiable).

By the end of Kaaka Muttai, much has happened, but all that has changed is that the kids have eaten a pizza – and learnt that the image has more punch than the real thing. The media fracas set off by their filmed encounter with a nasty pizza parlour manager leads us to the same conclusion. Boot Polish's epic arc, in contrast, leads its protagonists from extreme deprivation to an almost mythical new start.

And yet, there are moments when we see glimpses of suppressed complexity. “
Ba se ber,” (B for ber, a small fruit) says Belu, reading the alphabet to her adoring new mother. “Mujhe ber bahot pasand hai. Chocolate nahi. Papa roz chocolate laate hain, ber kyon nahi laate?” (I like ber very much, not chocolate. Papa brings me chocolate every day, but why doesn’t he bring me ber?) She is already in the position of the two well-off children in Kaaka Muttai, who willingly trade their mall-bought new clothes for panipuri. But when the Kaaka Muttai kids decide dosa tastes better than pizza after all, the film’s end feels a little bit wishful.

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