Like films set in Bombay rather than Mumbai and Madras rather than Chennai, Faraz Ali’s Shoebox is about Allahabad rather than Prayagraj.
Through the story of a movie theatre owner and his relationship with his daughter, Ali and co-writer Noopur Sinha explore the ways in which a gentrifying city is experienced, remembered and memorialised. Shoebox was shot in 2018, with the Maha Kumbh festival as a backdrop. That year, the Adityanath-led government in Uttar Pradesh renamed Allahabad as Prayagraj.
Shoebox marks this erasure through the journey of Palace Cinema from a thriving single-screen cinema to a shuttered shell. Palace Cinema matters deeply to its owner Madhav (Purnendu Bhattacharya), a Bengali settled in Allahabad, and his daughter Mampu (Amrita Bagchi).
As a child, Mampu and her friend Kaustubh (Ashutosh Sohan) have bunked school to linger in Palace Cinema’s darkened and inviting interiors. As an adult, Mampu returns to the city to encounter an ailing Madhav, attempts by a builder to take over Palace Cinema and memories of bruising encounters with her father.
Shoebox joins a raft of independent Indian films that chronicle the links between memory and lived spaces. Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar (2019) traces the life cycle of a house in a village in Bihar. In Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (2021), a rapidly transforming Kolkata is a playground of dreams and nightmares.
Faraz Ali initially set out to shoot photographs for a coffee table book. He then thought of making a documentary on the ways in which Allahabad was changing and mutating.
“As filmmakers, our first instinct is to make something about the milieu in which we grew up,” Ali said. “I was waiting for the right moment and the urgency to make the film. That happened around 2017.” The following year, Allahabad became Prayagraj.
Shoebox will be premiered at the online edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (November 4-10). Among the movie’s themes is the “crisis that memory is facing” in the present, Ali told Scroll.in.
The 36-year-old filmmaker was born and raised in Allahabad. He left the city in 2013 first for Pune and later Mumbai. “Every time I went back, I could see the slow changes that were brewing in the city,” Ali recalled. “The transition was both architectural and emotional.”
Shoebox reflects this rupture through documentary-influenced fiction. A shooting style that combines frontal framing and juxtaposition reveal ruin and rejuvenation. Earth movers drone away with old houses in the background, while movies are now consumed in multiplexes nestled inside shopping malls, a world away from Palace Cinema’s cheaply ticketed seats and working-class patrons who arrive on cycles rather than in cars.
Many moments were constructed. In other sequences, Ali and cinematographer Mahesh Aney simply picked up on what already existed. Ali wanted an “organic” and “docudrama” feel to the film. “For instance, there’s a shot of a man sitting near Palace Cinema’s box office window – we didn’t place him there,” Ali said. “He was already sitting there, and we just shot him.”
Several years ago, Ali had visited a friend in Gurugram (previously known as Gurgaon) and was struck by the overwhelming sameness in the housing complexes. “Everything looked similar, and there was nothing distinctive about it,” Ali recalled. “Allahabad and many other towns in India will look like Gurgaon in a few years. The architecture will change and take the people with it.”
In Shoebox too, people change as the world around them changes. Mampu’s equation with her father shifts, as does her bond with her friend Kaustubh, whose brother has links with the builder who wants to redevelop Palace Cinema. As buildings crumble and rise again, Mampu’s childhood returns in the form of reminiscences about schoolyard brawls and trading cards featuring wrestlers.
“Things define us – the shoebox encapsulates an entire childhood,” Ali observed.
The movie isn’t directly autobiographical. Ali’s father is a cloth trader. However, elements from Ali’s formative years are contained in Shoebox, such as the bridge that bisects 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 Mansarovar Palace, a cinema owned by a Parsi family. Mansarovar Palace continues to screen mostly Bhojpuri films or re-runs.
Literary giant Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s book of essays Last Bungalow: Writings on Allahabad was also among the inspirations. Shoebox features the films of another of Allahabad’s famous sons. Amitabh Bachchan, who was born in Allahabad in 1942 and was elected to Parliament from there in 1984, draws in the crowds at Palace Cinema. Bachchan’s personal gentrification from Hindi cinema’s resident rebel to establishment figure is among the metaphorical flourishes in Ali’s delicately directed, commendably performed and beautifully produced film.
The difficult process of mounting the production, assembling the crew and funds, and shooting on location had an unlikely mentor. In 2017, Ali scraped together the money to attend a filmmaking course conducted by the legendary maverick director Werner Herzog at the Rogue Film School in Munich. “That changed everything – I stopped complaining,” Ali said.
Through an exercise that involved opening a lock that didn’t have a key, Herzog revealed the beauty and agony of filmmaking.
“Herzog said, people don’t want you to make films, 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 will show your film, start your own festival. I worked for three years to save money and make Shoebox with my friends, but the gratification at the end of it was supreme.”
Having previously made a bunch of short films, Ali turned to seasoned talent with documentary experience for his debut feature. Mahesh Aney’s evocative mood lighting and keenly observed frames create an archive of a storied city. Jabeen Merchant’s unhurried editing and elegant montages capture the rhythms of life and the city itself caught between the past and the present.
Ali contacted Mahesh Aney after watching Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary on archivist PK Nair. (Aney was one of several cinematographers on the project). Aney told Ali, let’s create an organic and experiential film, one whose images linger after the screening has ended.
Jabeen Merchant’s edit of The Last Adieu, Shabnam Sukhdev’s documentary on her father S Sukhdev, caught Ali’s eye.
“There is so much love for the past and the way Mahesh and Jabeen treat memory,” Ali said. “Jabeen came on the shoot, gave us notes on what to include and what to keep out. I was blessed to have top-notch technicians, including production designer Saikat Bose, who added so much to the interiors.”
The movie features a cameo by folk singer Alah Samrat Faujdar Singh Jaunpuri, who sings of Siberian cranes, the shrinking ozone layer, and riverine pollution. “I was looking for somebody to bind the film together in a poetic way,” Ali said. “My associate casting director, who is from Allahabad, showed me videos of Faujdar Singh. He is amazing, a rock star.”
As Mampu grapples with her predicament – should she fight or flee? – the movie provides an elegiac view of the modern Indian city and a dose of reality far removed from the crowd-pleasing fare screened at Palace Cinema.
“I don’t like solution-driven films,” Ali declared. “There is no gratification in my film – there is helplessness but no hopelessness.” Allahabad may eventually be transmogrified beyond recognition, but in the shoebox of Mampu’s memories, it lives on, possibly forever.