In Their Shoes is an honest tale of a city caught between two worlds

After Katiyabaaz last year comes another documentary out of Uttar Pradesh’s various cities-in-flux. Directed by Atul Sabharwal, In Their Shoes takes a close hard look at Agra’s legacy, here bigger than the Taj Mahal: its centuries old shoemaking industry.

Sabharwal, who has previously written and directed Bollywood film Aurangzeb (2013) and TV series Powder for Yash Raj Films, goes back to his hometown to shoot this documentary that traverses the narrow alleys, crowded slums and giant export houses of the historic city. It raises more questions than it answers through various interviews of footwear artisans, traders, manufacturers, exporters and government officials.

While the subject matter may sound dour to the unsuspecting viewer, it is brought to life by sensitive treatment and an interesting placement of the city within larger world affairs. The 90-minute documentary charts the crests and troughs of Agra’s shoe trade from Mughal times to present day. The first segment shows the shop of Sabharwal’s father. We are then introduced to the other players in the local industry and how the synthetic foam leather from China completely changed the tide.

The film also looks at current government policies on the leather shoe industry, replete with the woes of traders and buyers, exporters and artisans alike. Through these voices the film tries to make sense of the tale of this industry and the men who built it — and how it was affected by global events such as Partition, the rise of the Soviet Union,  the Solidarity Movement of Poland, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and India’s economic liberalisation.

While Katiyabaaz rode high on production values — catchy music, cinematography, a larger-than-life protagonist — making it akin to the average Bollywood action flick, In Their Shoes is more your regular documentary, relying heavily on nostalgia, human interest and history. (Though budgetary constraints could justify the obvious differences.

Katiyabaaz was produced for a little over Rs 1 crore and In Their Shoes was wrapped up in under Rs 10 lakh.) As Sabharwal’s father, a shoe trader himself, takes him around Hing Mandi, the largest shoe market in the city, the candour of the documentary as well as its slackness comes across — be it through their warm personal rapport or by being able to see the boom microphone in the frame.

The old-timers of this trade relay historical, personal as well as anecdotal information, from Bata starting its first factory in Agra to stories of how Partition changed the landscape of this industry. For instance, the leather business that was once the prerogative of the Muslim and Jatava communities saw stiff competition from the Sindhi and Punjabi Hindus who migrated over and found success after getting their inhibitions of working with animal skin.

In another touching scene, a shoe trader describes the loving act of polishing a leather boot as a “ceremony” of sorts, now dying a slow death at the hands of these convenience-based fast-paced times.

There is a lot of use of archival footage, from Garam Hawa to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A particularly riveting scene involves a parallel montage of the latter with artisans at work hammering away at shoes, piecing the larger picture together. There are many cutaway shots of Agra’s monuments as well, interestingly, not of the Taj Mahal’s.  

The film is sluggish in parts, but it almost always picks up with some interesting anecdotes or historical nuggets. While the film started with a personal quest by the director-producer to find out why his father never wanted him to become a leather shoes trader, it steers clear of becoming an overly sentimental journey. Instead, it provides a valuable insight into an indigenous industry and its complexities.

The industry in its present shape is a manufacturer’s bane and a worker’s nightmare, and the film indicates that a lot of effort is needed to revive it. Narendra Modi’s Make in India campaign sounds hollow with documentaries such as these, which portray the harsh reality on the ground.

In Their Shoes has a limited release through PVR’s Director’s Rare in five cities (Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Agra and Pune) on March 13