Walking in Sathyu’s shoes?

Trisha Gupta | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on March 13, 2015

Body and sole: Part of a montage, this still from In Their Shoes shows a worker carrying his wares; followed soon after by barefoot namaazis holding their shoes

Trisha Gupta

Four decades after Garm Hava comes a lively documentary on the Agra shoe trade. But In Their Shoes steers clear of any reference to actual leather production

Early in MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, Balraj Sahni boards a tanga from the railway station, where he’s just seen off some more relatives moving to Pakistan. The tangewalla, in the way of the small town, is familiar with Salim Mirza and his possible routes: ‘ Haveli ya karkhana (home or factory),’ he asks. As they trot through town to Mirza’s shoe-manufacturing unit, the tangewalla says conversationally, “Our Hindu brothers here are good, no matter what happens they won’t touch leather work!” The same, apparently, cannot be said of the Hindu refugees from across the border: “ Je toh dhandhe ke peechhe dharam ka bhi lihaaj nahi karein hain bhaiya (So intent are they on business that they’ve stopped attending to religion, brother).” A day will come, predicts the tangewalla, when they’ll own this Tikonia Bazaar.

Garm Hava is set in Agra in 1947, in the aftermath of Partition. But since it was made in 1973, its writers had the advantage of hindsight: by the ’60s, shoe trade in the city had passed into the hands of Punjabis relocated from Karachi and Lahore. Screenwriter Shama Zaidi (also Sathyu’s wife) began the script from conversations with Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai about relatives and friends leaving for Pakistan. But it was co-writer Kaifi Azmi’s experience with shoe-manufacturing workers in Kanpur that produced the film’s nuanced portrait of how economy is interlaced with community. Salim Mirza runs one of several Muslim-owned shoe karkhanas, with workers who are either Muslim or Jatav: communities placed beyond the pale of ‘polluting’ by religion and caste respectively. When Mirza must vacate his family haveli, it is allotted to a Sindhi refugee businessman.

Four decades after Garm Hava comes a lively documentary on the Agra shoe trade, made by the grandson of one of those refugees the tangewalla might have spoken of. Atul Sabharwal, who debuted as a director in Bollywood with 2013’s family-and-real-estate saga Aurangzeb, sets out here to map the contours of the business that his father quietly discouraged him from entering. In Their Shoes is straightforwardly structured, with shots of Agra and its shoe karkhanas interspersed with talking heads, most of them old hands, acquaintances of the elder Sabharwal. The filmmaker doesn’t hide his ease of access: again and again, his father Om Prakash appears in the frame, introducing him to shop-owners: “ Bachcha, ek documentary bana raha hai... Poochhna hai Atul toh poochh le Uncle se.

Sabharwal displays both a sustained interest in the big picture and a sympathetic concern with the personal histories of his protagonists. Through businessmen, small and large, and to a lesser extent the artisans, the film manages to provide an inside view of how a trade is passed on through generations: from fathers to sons, and from ustads to shagirds. Rather than the dullness and chafing you might expect at the lack of choice, what most second-generation traders communicate is the sense of belonging, adulthood and, dare I say, fun that the business offered them as young men. Stylistically, there’s little quirkiness, though I enjoyed the small touches: archival photographs of bazaars and family business documents, and one montage using a striking visual match between workers carrying shoes and namaazis carrying shoes, barefoot across the Jama Masjid.

The film also does a fine job of contextualising the ups and downs of the shoe trade in Agra, both geographically and historically. It shows, for instance, how exports to the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries became a mainstay and then led to losses as the Ruble crashed; and, more recently, how the post-liberalisation lifting of a longtime ban on leather export pushed leather prices through the roof, paving the way for Chinese synthetic leather-substitutes in a massive way. Relevant footage from Garm Hava makes a split-second appearance, unremarked, while the voiceover has an elderly gentleman describing how small-time shoe traders would take a basket full of shoes around the mandi (wholesale market). But while we’re told the gleeful post-Partition anecdote of a Bania trader who went from handling leather gingerly in a towel to sorting out leather pieces by hand, the Garm Hava tangewalla’s apposite comment does not make it to the documentary.

The elder Sabharwal offers up a charming origin myth for leather work in Agra. The wholesale market for shoes, Heeng ki Mandi, where his shop is, was once the Mughal market for asafoetida. Heeng arrived from Iran, on camel-back, having been pounded and packed in calf-leather pouches. When the heeng was unpacked, the leather was discarded. Slowly, shoes began to be made from it. This narrative may have some truth to it. And one can see the appeal of tracing a grubby business like leatherwork back to the time of Akbar, with all the romance of camel caravans, Iranian heeng and handmade shoes that took a kaarigar (artisan) a week to make. But for me, it also points to the biggest absence in the film: the making of leather.

There is one fleeting mention of tanneries, in the context of a ban on them for polluting the Yamuna. Else, the 90-minute film stays away from any reference to leather production. It is as if the filmmaker sat down and decided that anything to do with cattle, animal skins, Muslims and Dalits might be too controversial, or need viewers with strong stomachs.

Perhaps he’s right. Certainly, it would seem so from Vikram Seth’s memorable fictional guided tour of the Brahmpur shoe trade in A Suitable Boy. Whether it is the desperate poverty and insanitary working conditions of Ravidaspur’s Jatav shoe-makers, or the posher CLFC (Cawnpore Leather and Footwear Company) tannery where the genteel Lata Mehra and her mother nearly choke from the smell, Seth makes it clear this is not an easy milieu. Even though Haresh Khanna is “quick to explain to Lata’s mother” that the hides were from ‘fallen animals’, not slaughtered ones, and also that “they did not accept hides from Muslim slaughterhouses”, the stench of ‘dirty work’ seems to hang in the air. I wish Sabharwal had taken on some of that undeserved, lingering disdain.

( Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi)

Follow Trisha on Twitter @chhotahazri

Published on March 13, 2015
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