Atul Sabharwal made his writing and directing debut on television with Powder, the riveting 2010 series about a government narcotics unit’s attempts to take down a druglord. His film debut, 2013’s Aurangzeb, looked at the land mafia in Gurgaon through twin brothers separated at birth. His first documentary, In Their Shoes, appears to be vastly different from his first two projects, but the same motifs run through all the productions, says the 38-year-old filmmaker.

In Their Shoes is the absorbing story of Agra’s well-entrenched footwear industry. The 93-minute film traces the evolution of shoe manufacturing in the Uttar Pradesh city and the past and present problems faced by its local traders. In Their Shoes provides vital insights into small-town commercial practices. Most of the factories and allied businesses are family-owned, and labour shortage, international currency currents, and government policies on pollution and export all play their part in bumping up or dragging down fortunes. The home-grown and hard-won acumen, pragmatism and passion of the traders animate the chronicle, which will be screened at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on February 18 and will be distributed through the PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare platform in the chain’s multiplexes on March 13.

“I am interested in a certain vein of business attitude,” Sabharwal said. “Powder and Aurangbzeb were also primarily about cities and one trade that thrives there – of course, this trade can also thrive on the other side of the law.”

Asafoetida to footwear

The documentary is framed as a personal journey by the filmmaker, who grew up in Agra and whose father, shoe material supplier Om Prakash Sabharwal, dissuaded him from joining the family business. A small incident that took place in 2012 lodged itself into Sabharwal’s memory. “I had dropped into Agra on the way to a trek,” he said. “We had gone to a Woodlands showroom to pick up shoes, and my father looked at a pair and said, a lot had changed.”

Sabharwal’s next few months were spent on getting Aurangzeb off the ground. One of its themes is the difficult relationship between fathers and sons. “All my actors had some sort of interesting relationship with their fathers,” Sabharwal said. “I saw the Woodland episode evolving into something. When my mind was free, it struck me like a lightning blot, and I asked my dad on camera why he had always pushed me away from the family business. I thought I would interview him and see how it evolved.”

In 2013, the personal quest quickly developed into an inquiry into how Agra came to be India’s shoe capital and the families that made this possible. The account is narrated through conversations with his father and interviews with individual traders and export companies.

Commerce in footwear goes back several decades – local lore has it that asafoetida traders would bring the spice in leather pouches from Iran that were discarded and used to make shoes. The trade was dominated by Muslims and Jatavs until the Partition. The cataclysmic events of 1947 and the massive population swaps between India and the newly formed nation of Pakistan resulted in major shifts in Agra. Sabharwal’s own family were hardware traders who were among the thousands that relocated to the city after Partition. As the Hindu refugees from Pakistan shed their caste restrictions and began manufacturing shoes and handling buffalo hide, the Sabharwals began supplying shoe-making material.

The documentary reveals the amity that exists between Hindu and Muslim families, many of whom live and work cheek by jowl in the city’s congested shoe-making quarter. Agra’s footwear industry has previously formed the backdrop to MS Sathyu’s acclaimed Partition period drama Garm Hava. A moment from the 1974 movie, in which central character Salim Mirza is seen hawking his wares in open baskets, is a part of In Their Shoes. “My film picks up from where Garm Hava ends,” Sabharwal said. “There is a great deal of harmony, but of course, it’s not a picture post card and people do have their issues.”

Walking the talk

An effective technique deployed in the film is the walks that Sabharwal senior takes through the shoe market district, during which he introduces his son and the film project to his old friends. The picture is similar to what is witnessed in old commercial neighbourhoods in many of India’s big cities – patriarchs perched behind counters and desks at their stores, as they have been for decades, watching customers enter and exit, the day’s earnings total up, and acquaintances drop in for a cup of tea and conversation.

“There is something about the social construction of these markets and their inhabitants, and the way the business neighbours behave with one another,” Sabharwal said. “I remembered these walks from my childhood, but it never really struck me until the sixth or seventh day of the shoot. Then somebody suggested that I need to do something to bind the interviews together.”

In previous decades, the traders would organise picnics during the monsoon, when business was slow since the leather would not dry. The arrival of synthetic foam has put paid to the picnics, and, as the film reveals, transformed the shoe trade. There’s a supply glut, quality is in peril, and makers of leather shoes who are already affected by a government policy that concentrates on exports over nurturing domestic markets worry about their future.

Yet, In Their Shoes isn’t lachrymose about the traders and their prospects – it is suggested that these hardy men have always found and will continue to find ways to deal with events beyond their control. “I was very conscious of not sentimentalising,” Sabharwal said. “In fact, when I screened the first cut, it had so many people in it that nobody could relate to anybody. I started revisiting the personal moments and putting them back in.”

The shoe that always fits

Sabharwal was especially keen on contradicting the popular perception of smaller Indian cities as sad and underdeveloped places that need doles and sympathy. “There is a certain kind of small-town India that we have come to represent, and while I didn’t set out to defy it, part of me wanted to show how wrong it is,” Sabharwal said. “For instance, one sequence that I didn’t include in the final film is of a shop part seller who puts a durrie on the ground every week. He knows as much about foreign exchange and the rising dollar as a chartered accountant. He might have a different worldview, but he is not an idiot. We tend to portray small-town people as jokers and comedians. They know what is happening in the world, they are very intelligent people, and they are well aware of what affects them. The film tapped into these emotions.”

Some of the spirit of self-taught enterprise has rubbed off on the filmmaker. In Their Shoes is entirely self-financed to the tune of close to Rs 8 lakh. Sabharwal left home when he was 17 to pursue chartered accountancy studies that he eventually abandoned for filmmaking. He moved to Mumbai in 2001 – “perhaps unconsciously, my father, who is a film buff, wanted me to come here,” he said. The main reason he funded his film with his own money was to own its copyright. “One hopes to recoup the money so that one can keep taking these flights of fantasy,” Sabharwal said. “My main focus was to undertake this journey on my own.”