In the Indian independent film Shoebox, the town once known as Allahabad

Like the films set in Bombay rather than Mumbai and Madras rather than Chennai, Faraz Ali’s film Shoe box concerns Allahabad rather than Prayagraj.

Through the story of a movie theater owner and his relationship with his daughter, Ali and co-writer Noopur Sinha explore the ways a gentrifying city is experienced, remembered and commemorated. Shoe box was filmed in 2018, with the Maha Kumbh festival as a backdrop. That year, the government led by Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh renamed Allahabad to Prayagraj.

Shoe box marks this erasure through the Palace Cinema journey from a flourishing single-screen cinema to a shuttered shell. Palace Cinema means a lot to its owner Madhav (Purnendu Bhattacharya), a Bengali living in Allahabad, and his daughter Mampu (Amrita Bagchi).

As a child, Mampu and her friend Kaustubh (Ashutosh Sohan) left school to linger in the dark and welcoming interiors of the Palace Cinema. As an adult, Mampu returns to town to meet a sick Madhav, attempts by a builder to take over the palace cinema, and memories of deadly encounters with his father.

Amrita Bagchi in Shoebox (2021). Courtesy of Going Rogue Films.

Shoe box joins a series of independent Indian films that relate the links between memory and lived spaces. Achal Mishra Gamak ghar (2019) traces the life cycle of a house in a village in Bihar. At Aditya Vikram Sengupta Once upon a time in Calcutta (2021), a transforming Calcutta is a playground of dreams and nightmares.

Faraz Ali first set out to take photos for a coffee table book. He then thought of making a documentary on the ways in which Allahabad changed and mutated.

“As filmmakers, our first instinct is to do something about the environment in which we grew up,” said Ali. “I was waiting for the right moment and the urgency to make the film. This happened around 2017. ”The following year Allahabad became Prayagraj.

Shoe box will be previewed during the online edition of the Dharamsala International Film Festival (November 4-10). Among the themes of the film is the “crisis facing memory” in the present, said Ali Scroll. In.

The 36-year-old filmmaker was born and raised in Allahabad. He left the city in 2013 first for Pune and later for Mumbai. “Every time I came back I could see the slow changes taking place in the city,” recalls Ali. “The transition has been both architectural and emotional.

Shoe box reflects this rupture through a fiction of documentary influence. A shooting style that combines frontal framing and juxtaposition reveals ruin and rejuvenation. Movers of the earth are buzzing with old houses in the background, while films are now consumed in multiplexes tucked away in shopping malls, a world away from cheap Palace Cinema seats and arriving working class patrons. by bike rather than by car.

Many moments have been built. In other footage, Ali and cinematographer Mahesh Aney simply took over what was already there. Ali wanted an “organic” and “docudrama” feel for the film. “For example, there’s a photo of a man sitting by the Palace Cinema box office window – we didn’t put it there,” Ali said. “He was already sitting there, and we just shot him. “

Shoe box (2021). Courtesy of Going Rogue Films.

Several years ago Ali had visited a friend in Gurugram (formerly known as Gurgaon) and was struck by the overwhelming similarity of the housing complexes. “Everything looked the same and there was nothing distinctive about it,” recalls Ali. “Allahabad and many other Indian cities will be like Gurgaon in a few years. Architecture will change and take people with it.

In Shoe box also, people change as the world around them changes. Mampu’s equation with his father changes, as does his bond to his friend Kaustubh, whose brother has ties to the builder who wants to redevelop the Palace Cinema. As the buildings crumble and rise again, Mampu’s childhood returns in the form of reminiscences of schoolyard brawls and trading cards featuring wrestlers.

“Things define us – the shoebox sums up a whole childhood,” observed Ali.

The film is not directly autobiographical. Ali’s father is a linen merchant. However, elements of Ali’s formative years are contained in Shoe box, such as the bridge that crosses Allahabad and its reputation for intellectual thought, poetry, spiritualism and cultural diversity. “That Allahabad still exists, but only in pockets,” Ali said.

Palace Cinema is actually the Mansarovar Palace, a cinema owned by a Parsi family. Mansarovar Palace continues to primarily screen films or reruns of Bhojpuri.

The book of essays by literary giant Arvind Krishna Mehrotra Last bungalow: Writings on Allahabad was also among the inspirations. Shoe box presents the films of another of Allahabad’s famous sons. Amitabh Bachchan, born in Allahabad in 1942 and elected to Parliament in 1984, draws crowds to the Palace Cinema. The personal gentrification of Bachchan, from resident rebel of Hindi cinema to establishment figure, is part of the metaphorical flourishes of Ali’s delicately directed, laudable and beautifully produced film.

Shoe box (2021). Courtesy of Going Rogue Films.

The difficult process of setting up production, assembling the crew and funds, and filming on location had an unlikely mentor. In 2017, Ali raised the money to attend a film class led by legendary maverick director Werner Herzog at Rogue Film School in Munich. “It changed everything – I stopped complaining,” Ali said.

Through an exercise that involved opening a keyless lock, Herzog revealed the beauty and agony of cinema.

“Herzog said, people don’t want you to make movies, cinema is all about you and the selfish burden of your dreams,” Ali said. “Herzog said, if there are no producers, become a producer yourself. If no festival presents your film, start your own festival. I worked for three years to save money and earn Shoe box with my friends, but the gratification at the end was supreme.

Having already directed numerous short films, Ali turned to seasoned talents with documentary experience for his first feature film. Mahesh Aney’s evocative mood lighting and carefully observed frames create the archives of a city steeped in history. Jabeen Merchant’s unhurried editing and elegant edits capture the rhythms of life and the city itself caught between the past and the present.

Shoe box (2021). Courtesy of Going Rogue Films.

Ali contacted Mahesh Aney after watching Celluloid man, the documentary by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur on archivist PK Nair. (Aney was one of the many cinematographers on the project). Aney told Ali, let’s create an organic, experiential film, the images of which persist after the screening ends.

Jabeen Merchant’s edition of The last farewell, Shabnam Sukhdev’s documentary about his father S Sukhdev, caught Ali’s attention.

“There is so much love for the past and the way Mahesh and Jabeen deal with memory,” Ali said. “Jabeen came on the set, gave us notes on what to include and what to avoid. I was fortunate to have top notch technicians including Production Designer Saikat Bose who added so much to the interior.

The film features an appearance by folk singer Alah Samrat Faujdar Singh Jaunpuri, who sings about the Siberian cranes, the shrinking ozone layer and the pollution of rivers. “I was looking for someone to tie the film together in a poetic way,” Ali said. “My associate casting director, who is from Allahabad, showed me videos of Faujdar Singh. He’s amazing, a rock star.

Faraz Ali.

As Mampu grapples with her predicament, should she fight or flee? – the film offers an elegiac view of the modern Indian city and a dose of reality far removed from the crowd-pleasing dishes shown at the Palace Cinema.

“I don’t like solution-oriented films,” Ali said. “There is no gratification in my film – there is helplessness but no despair.” Allahabad may possibly be transfigured beyond recognition, but in Mampu’s shoebox of memories he lives, perhaps forever.

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