Retracing a father’s footsteps

Posted on March 14, 2015


Dissuaded by his father from joining the family shoe-trading business, Atul Sabharwal turned filmmaker. Now, in a documentary titled ‘In Their Shoes’, he looks at the shoe trade in Agra – how it began, and what it is today.

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After Aurangzeb, a big, fat mainstream movie for Yash Raj studios, what made you decide on a documentary?

I get drawn to the project based on what I am feeling at that moment, the inner crisis that I am facing. Aurangzeb was about three sons who leave their respective homes and their fathers in the physical sense or in a meta sense, by leaving their ideologies only to return home all battered and bruised and open to those ideologies. In Their Shoes is about sons who returned and those who didn’t and won’t. Fathers make sons and In Their Shoes goes on to inspect what makes fathers, the history that they lived through.

I guess Aurangzeb, in a way, left these emotions incomplete in me, and I thankfully found an avenue in In Their Shoes to dig deeper into them and hopefully exorcise myself.

In India, only a few “art film” makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan have consistently alternated between features and documentaries. Given your interest in mainstream cinema, could being known as a “documentary guy” affect the kind of films you are offered?

I would like to believe that it won’t. I am not the first one to do this. Shyam Benegal, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese have made great fiction and documentaries. You somehow have to slip through the fingers of the people who are trying to put a label on you. That’s one of the givens for a film director, I believe. Then, somehow, find a way back. So I guess I’ll be fine whenever I want to make a mainstream film again.

When I made Aurangzeb, I was often asked: “You have done Powder; will you do more television?” I’ll keep doing whatever I get drawn to if I can raise or have at my disposal enough means to invest into the emotion that is attracting me.

The narrative begins with intimate, first-person accounts about how people came into this business and slowly grows into an “India story,” about manufacturing shoes for the export market. Did you have this in mind while you began shooting or did you discover the scope of this story as you went along?

Most of it was a discovery as I went along. But having said that, my grandfather was a great storyteller and his favourite backdrop was the Partition. He used to tell us personal stories from pre-Partition India. And as I grew up to be a storyteller of sorts, I always recollected my grandfather’s narratives and felt that there was something very The Grapes of Wrath-ish about the immigrants and refugees who came from what is now Pakistan. I also had recollection from my childhood about a classmate who was known to be the son of one of the richest men in town. And then suddenly one day they lost their fortune. Where did their wealth go? It was a mystery to us kids in school. It went with the collapse of the USSR, I learnt later, when we grew up a bit. So I had a vague memory of USSR’s collapse and its impact on the shoe market in Agra. Then by the time I was in 9th or 10th grade there was this euphoria in my father’s voice about a magical scheme called VDIS (Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme) that was introduced by Manmohan Singh. It seemed to be the answer to all my father’s prayers. These stories and incidents were somewhere in my subconscious and I discovered these within me as much as I discovered new things that I had no clue of at all.

What made you choose to show the actual process of information gathering (the way we hear your voice here asking questions, and the subjects responding) versus doing the whole thing “invisibly,” with an omniscient narration?

I did not want to have an alien voice in the film. That much I was clear about from the start. A commentary from a dubbing artist who is not a character in the film was something I resisted from the beginning. It was just one of those stubborn decisions that you make, a rule that you devise for yourself and then stick by.

The electronic music is an interesting choice. Given the Agra setting and all the talk about the past, one would have expected a more traditional-sounding score. What made you go for this?

The soundscape of a film does not have to be in tandem with the visual-scape. The music is more for the mood of the story, for the subtext. I hope I am not intellectualising the choices. These things sometimes happen and they turn out to be “right decisions” because they feel right in the final film. That’s the extent of my articulating it.

Early on, in Agra, we see a sound guy with boom mike. Then we see you in a dubbing room in Mumbai, with scenes from this very documentary playing on a screen in front of you. Why did you opt for this distancing framing device?

Call it some kind of confluence of the worlds of filmmaking and shoemaking: a collision of my world and my father’s world. There were very few ways of suggesting visually that “this man’s son didn’t join the shoe business and is now a professional film director”. People who have heard of me or who have read about me would know, but what about others? I am directing this documentary, fine. But how would anyone who hasn’t heard of me know that directing films is my day job? That thought led to this approach. I don’t know yet if the technique works.

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A hypothetical question. How would you have treated this “journey” had you made it part of a mainstream film, with your character being the protagonist?

I don’t know. How can I ever tell? At least not for the time being.

This is obviously a very personal story. Was making this documentary a form of catharsis, especially as your father is in the film too?

It was somewhat. Nothing can be fully cathartic though.

There are times one gets the feeling you almost yearn to be a part of all this, and that some part of you is resentful of your father for stopping you from entering this business that has your – to borrow a phrase from the film – “buzurgon ka khoon” (blood of your ancestors).

I am not resentful at all, in fact. I am happy to be a part of Dadasaheb Phalke’s legacy in our country. I always dreamt of being a filmmaker, and when I was in Agra I didn’t know how to turn this dream into a profession. I never told anyone in my family about this dream, this secret love. So my lazy choice was to join my father’s business. And it was my father’s foresight, heroism or sheer coincidence that he wanted his children to seek broader horizons. For him, that meant that I become a Chartered Accountant or get an MBA degree. So he nudged me in one direction, life pulled me in other, and eventually I just gave in to the urge of my secret love for making movies. It’s just wishful thinking that one could gain this without losing out on the legacy of the shoe business of one’s ancestors. I just acted on that wishful thinking and gave it a tangible shape in the form of a film.

You stop the shoe story at one point and get into a sentimental Hindi film dialogue about the love between a father and his son. Your father wanted you out because he felt this wasn’t an easy business to be in. He wanted you to do something “safe.” And yet, here you are, a filmmaker – it’s as unsafe a profession as can be. What does your father feel about this?

I think he’s fine with it. He’s made his peace with it. Some of our relatives have often told me to make a blockbuster of Rohit Shetty proportions, as if it was as easy as just deciding on it and doing it. Their logic is that a money spinner or two will make you secure, firm your feet in the industry. I don’t know if my father is part of that brigade in our family.

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