BOOT POLISH (Dir. Prakash Arora, 1954)
CHAKRA (Dir. Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1981)
SALAAM BOMBAY (Dir. Mira Nair, 1988)
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (Dir. Danny Boyle, 2008)
Produced by Raj Kapoor in the same year as his masterpiece Awara (The Vagabond), whilst Boot Polish takes its aesthetic cue from the neo realist influences of De Sica, in particular Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946), the ideological tendencies echoes Chaplin’s sentimental treatment of poverty. Much has been made of who exactly should be credited as director of Boot Polish. Though Raj Kapoor produced the film, it was somewhat of a personal project as it brought together the more conventional elements of Indian melodrama with neo realist aesthetics which had already left a notable impression with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land). Prakash Arora who had worked as an assistant director to Raj Kapoor is credited with Boot Polish but it is the only film he ever directed. Arora may have been at the helm but with Kapoor simultaneously directing his muse Nargis in Awara, such an epic undertaking must have decidely prevented him from acting as director on Boot Polish.
Nevertheless, the parallels between Awara and Boot Polish are most evident in the representation of slum life as both offer what was considered at the time a realist depiction. Whilst Awara is a prestige project concerned with class conflict, Boot Polish constructs a socialist agenda focusing on a sentimental representation of street children, slum life and child poverty. All of these apparent social ills tie in with an optimistic inclination fostered by Nehru’s secularist and reformist vision for a new Indian society in which children are in control of their own destiny. Of course, much of this Nehruvian sentiment finds its way into the music of Shankar-Jaikishan and the lost and found narrative motif which even today finds sympathetic acknowledgement in films such as Salaam Bombay and most strikingly, Slumdog Millionaire. Ashis Nandy’s comments seem to illustrate a number of crucial points in regards to Indian cinema’s repeated and continuous fascination with the urban slum:
‘The right metaphor for the Indian popular cinema, alias conventional, commercial or Bombay cinema, turns out to be the urban slum. Ratnakar Tripathy, who first suggested the metaphor to me, seemed to hold that both cinema and the slum in India showed the same impassioned negotiation with everyday survival.’
Indian Popular Cinema as a Slum’s Eye View of Politics, Ashis Nandy, 1998, Oxford University Press, India
Arguably, the urban slum acts as a forceful allegory for the reality of the dispossessed and the social disparity that exists in many societies not just India. One can trace the influence of a film like Boot Polish to Mira Nair’s 1988 Salaam Bombay! in which the street kid, Krishna or Chaipau as he is referred to by the adult world, struggles to earn a measly 500 rupees so that he can return to his village and be reunited with his family. On its release, Nair’s ideological intentions were attacked by many critics with some accusing her of exploitation and failing to address the the contexts of poverty. I’m not sure if I agree with this line of argument as Nair unveils a reality that makes a lot of the middle classes nervous and perhaps even accountable for their motivated decision to marginalise and distance those millions which have generally been denied a voice. It was as though Nair’s response to Gayatri Spivak’s seminal post colonial critique titled ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ was an unequivocal and resounding yes! In 1988 Salaam Bombay! worldwide commercial success earned it the title of India’s first cross over film yet of course this led to further accusations yet again directed at Nair’s deliberate attempt to make a film aimed solely at a middle class audience in the West.
However, Nair’s influences can clearly be traced back to the neo realist traditions of post war Italy whilst also arguably owing a considerable debt to the direct cinema documentary movement that emerged out of America in the 60s. Unlike the romanticism inherent in the images of urban slum life in Raj Kapoor’s stylised production, Nair’s approach rejects many of the classical rules, embracing non professional actors, location shooting, an episodic narrative structure and most importantly, an observational approach that echoes a faith in documentary as truth. In what is a further twist of postmodern irony, the street children in particular are shown to both appreciate and mock popular Indian cinema through a colourful reinvention of the lyrics and dance numbers to Bollywood songs.
In many ways, the cinematic representation of the urban slum is tied to the lives of street children and poverty. Both Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) and Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, 1950) are also important films in the development of what is today commonly referred to as slum cinema or the street urchin film. More recently, the international success of the Latin American film City of God (Mierelles & Lund, 2002) revived critical debate in how the slums should be represented and if the criminal elements are deliberately romanticised. It is not hard to see how City of God appropriated a gangster stylisation and thus ensuring its appeal with the youth. Interestingly, for all its stylisation, a film like City of God does not shy away from ideological confrontation as it does seem to provide some sharp analysis of why the slums exist and how they ultimately imprison the youth. However, the slither of optimism as underlined by Rocket’s elevation out of the slums is a sharp contrast to Krishna’s painful imprisonment in Salaam Bombay! The realist treatment of slum life in the cinema of Raj Kapoor and Mira Nair arguably found its most populist, sentimental and celebrated evocation in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Interestingly, Loveleen Tandon who shares a director’s credit with Boyle on the film worked as casting director on three of Nair’s films (Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair and The Namesake) whilst also having been part of the art department on Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998).
Of course, Boot Polish and Salaam Bombay! are two just two of many examples of Indian cinema’s attempts to confront and represent the reality of slum life. I have nearly finished watching Chakra (Dir. Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1981), an example of parallel cinema and it is probably one of the more authentic and brutal depictions of the urban slum I have come across. I will come back and look at Chakra as an example of slum cinema as it seems to be a key film in the parallel cinema movement. Equally important is Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi which I have already discussed in a previous post. However, it seems appropriate to finish with another comment from Ashis Nandy’s (1988: 11) essential essay on the importance of the urban slum as an ideological backdrop:
‘The slum may or may not be ugly, it may or not symbolise absurdity, but it always has a story to tell about the state of the vitality, creativity and moral dynamism of the society that defines the relationship between the slum and suburbia.’
This seems to explain why the urban slum continues to be a repeated point of fascination for film makers as it offers a vitally important ideological opportunity to explore Indian society as a microcosm whilst also offering the marginalised with a credible voice with which to articulate their frustrations, dreams and nightmares.