It’s only when I had the DVD running that I remembered it was November 14, Children’s Day in India, Chacha Nehru’s birthday. In fact, the film ‘Boot Polish‘ (1954) belongs firmly in the Nehruvian era, when the country still believed in Socialism and Jawaharlal Nehru initiated his 5 year plans, amongst which was also the commitment to make education free and compulsory for all children.

It’s hard to believe in today’s film making climate, that a film like this could be produced by a mainstream film maker like Raj Kapoor. Though the film is slated as a children’s film, it sells no fairy tales but tells a very realistic story about Belu (Baby Naaz) and her brother Bhola (Ratan Kumar) who lose their mother to cholera, and their father to prison. They are virtually abandoned on the doorstep of their aunt Kamla by a social service worker, who doesn’t even wait to hand the children over to their aunt.

Kamla (Chand Burque) is a prostitute. She bears a grudge against the children’s parents and nothing melts her heart to the end. She puts the children to beg in the streets. As Bhola grows up, he finds begging distasteful, but changing professions from begging to polishing boots is not easy.

Chand Burque makes such a cruel aunt. Her tall, angular frame, and her big eyes are used to great effect. Specially when she does the mujra, her jerky movements in her ordinary clothes, make the scene very authentic. There is a shot earlier in the film, where she is lying on a cot in the middle of the hut, and she twists her head to look at the children, and in that posture, she suggests both her profession, and her indifference to the children.

The other adult in the children’s lives, a kind neighbour, John Chacha (David) is a drunk, a bootlegger and not a reliable sort despite all his affection.  And there is Chiku (Veera?), a boot polish guy, a pickpocket and perhaps even a pimp.

Despite this dark background, what makes the film palatable is the rapport between Belu and Bhola. Naaz and Ratan play the roles of slum kids so well, their affection for each other is so palpable, that you are completely taken in by their story, and willing good to happen to them. Naaz particularly is delightful, playful, and utterly believable as a slum child. With her crazy begging style and her childish greed for small treats, she reminded me of Deepa, a child I worked with in a documentary about street children.

A Bombay slum next to a railway track, the local trains, the train stations, including the grand Victoria Terminus are captured very convincingly.

The trains are a source of income for many children who live along the tracks. They make their living selling small trifles, begging, singing, collecting the garbage from the trains and tracks.  And the trains provide a constant background to the film.

‘Boot Polish’ works well because it does not try to wrench your heart in a deliberate manner. That it still manages to do so, is because the story is so real for thousands of children living on the streets even today.

The solution at the end of the film is perhaps too simplistic, too idealistic, but it can be forgiven because by the end of the film, your heart is with Belu and Bhola. The story remains their story, and does not get lost in trying to depict the reality of children in general.

The end is also very similar to the ending of my own children’s film ‘Lilkee‘, with a couple of almost identical moments, which made me wonder at how little things have changed over the years. The solution for Indian children still remains education, and we are still unable to provide one to a lot of them.

‘Boot Polish’ won the best film at the Filmfare Awards in 1955. Baby Naaz won a special mention at Cannes, and Prakash Arora, the director was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Sadly, he never made another film.

These clips here are a treasure of all that’s lovely about the film, the local train, the characters on the train, the singing, begging children, the cruel Aunty, and the little pleasures the children find for themselves despite the harshness of their lives.