Big Screen Movies

Raj Kapoor, the inimitable showman

Two stories Boot Polish makes a lighter comment on class conflict and Shoeshine constructs its entire film around it.  

Imitation, as opposed to copying, consists either in the interfusion of the same throughout the radically different, or the different throughout a base radically the same.

—‘Theory of Imagination’, Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This seminal distinction Coleridge made between copying and imitation provides a significant starting point to view the work of showman Raj Kapoor (who passed away in June, 29 years ago) and his influences. In simple terms, the distinction is between capturing the essence versus capturing the details of ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ in artistic expression (specifically poetry).

Having started life as a clapper boy at 11, and going on to work at Bombay Talkies and Prithvi Theatre, Kapoor was schooled in the aesthetic traditions of theatre and cinema. A tryst with contemporary international cinema in 1952 left a deep impact on the restless three-film old (Aag, Barsaat and Awaara) director and producer.

Just like film noir shaped the cinema of Guru Dutt, the films of Orson Welles and Frank Capra, along with those of the neorealists—Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) and Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves, Shoeshine and Miracle in Milan)—gave shape and colour to Kapoor’s films.

Welles expanded his stagy compositions and defined his lighting. Capra gave him his merry, optimistic lens, and the neorealists provided the perfect base to express his humanist ideology, closely linking his Nehruvian idealism to the condition of the common man and his present. While Chaplin, Welles and Capra gave him his trademark style, neorealism gave his films relevance.

Of all his films that bear the influence of Italian neorealism, Boot Polish (1954), produced and apparently ghost-directed by him, veers strikingly apart in choice of protagonists (children), lack of a love angle (Jaagtey Raho being the only other exception), and its complete submergence in socio-political realities.

A story of two poor shoeshine children, Boot Polish, set in contemporary India, came eight years after De Sica’s Shoeshine (Sciuscià), the story of two poor shoeshine children set in contemporary Italy.

The neorealists’ slice of realism had struck a deep chord with Kapoor. In his own words: “De Sica and Zavattini brought to the screen what they saw and felt. Something real. Slices of life… however, the most effective part of the whole movement was the allegory that was part of the film. That was very important.” It is interesting to examine the several similarities and differences between the two films.

Cinema of the times

Both films arose as a response to the socio-political realities of their respective countries. A newly-defeated Italy and a newly-independent India, both left bereft by bloodshed, strife and poverty, inform the tone of each film; one is despondent and the other hopeful in the face of dire adversity.

Both arise from a need for change, but Shoeshine is still assessing the war-torn mess, while Boot Polish is looking at it with a clear optimism fuelled by Nehru’s forward-looking and liberal outlook.

Driven by this difference in outlook, the narrative arc of Boot Polish goes from hopelessness to hope and that of Shoeshine, vice-versa.



Shoeshine begins with a dreamy opening sequence of two young boys enjoying the sight of a freely galloping horse in rolling fields and ends with the bloody death of one at the hands of the other with the horse as a central symbol of broken dreams.

Boot Polish, on the other hand, begins with two little destitute children, left at the mercy of a mean aunt and forced to beg, and ends with them being happily adopted by a loving, rich couple. The film evocatively ends with the children in school uniform, education being the brightest tool for socio-political and personal progress in the Nehruvian era.

It is perhaps due to these predilections that although both films speak about the economically backward, Boot Polish makes a lighter comment on class conflict while Shoeshine constructs its entire film around it.

They are clearly defined, right down to the jail hierarchies and the final verdict of the court. While Boot Polish aims at the integration of classes through humanitarianism (a rich couple adopting destitute children without judgement), Shoeshine defines how class structures further persecute the already persecuted. The children in both films are deeply bonded, one an orphaned brother-sister and the other brother-like friends. Both films make their children victims of society, chance and circumstance; while the agency of their separation in Boot Polish is chance, in Shoeshine, it is human manipulation, neither of their doing.

The children become a symbol rather than entities with independent moral choices. The moral choice of Bhola choosing the dignity of labour over the indignity of begging is a symbolic act, a message of ‘how to be’ in these trying times.

The moral choice of Pasquale, to spill the beans first and later kill Giuseppe, and that of Giuseppe, of setting up Pasquale and stealing the horse, reflect the moral state of post-war Italy. The undying loyalty of Bhola and Belu and the fragile faith between Pasquale and Giuseppe is the allegory of visions behind the films; of hope in Kapoor and dejection in De Sica, the visions themselves an allegory of their times.

It’s about tomorrow

True to Kapoor’s self-effacing idealism, Boot Polish ends on a note of self-respect. More than a social document, it becomes a beacon of hope, a clarion call to a torn nation to rebuild through love, a philosophy embodied in his immortal ‘Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe Ho Nisaar’ (Anari, 1959).

In his own words, “What is it, after all, that a man wants? Money, position and success—all are secondary. The basic thing is tomorrow: the knowledge and promise that tomorrow will be better than today. Nothing else matters.” (Raj Kapoor Speaks, Ritu Nanda).

Shoeshine, rooted in the despair of its times, gives it a stark voice with an innate compassion. As Ronald Bowers puts it, “Sciuscià emphasized the creators’ commitment to showing, through actual incidents, ‘the indifference of humanity to the needs of others’.”

Post-war Italy is a world, it is clearly saying, where might makes right and the bigger wins. What do we want to do about the smaller ones? Italy took note of the question according to a 1947The New York Times review of the film; it was “instrumental in bringing about reforms in the treatment of juvenile delinquents in Italian institutions”.

Coming back to Coleridge, while neorealists infused the same in the different, Kapoor chose to infuse the different in the same. They imitated rather than copied.

Obsessed with capturing the essence of the world around them, the neorealists changed the base of filmmaking with non-actors, real life settings and common man stories. They told us what we saw around us in a different form, a radically different form.

Kapoor, on his part, took his influences, each different from the other, his nationalist ideology and humanist world view, and put them into mainstream cinema, hence infusing the different in the same. Both chose to bring the essence of their truth rather than get entangled in details.

Perhaps, it is this insistence on the essence of reality infused in the dream-like that makes the showman inimitable, even today.

A fiction and non-fiction moonlighter for a decade, the writer is now enrolled in an adventure sports course called film editing at the Film and Television Institute of India.

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An earlier version of this article incorrectly mentioned Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe Ho Nisaar was from the movie Awara. It is from Anari.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 10:23:57 PM |

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