I saw this film once when I was a student many years ago, and I never forgot it. Now that I've seen it again on DVD, I'm happy to say that my former impression has been confirmed: I loved it just as much on a second viewing, if not more.
Boot Polish is a pure example of Hindi cinema, now commonly known as "Bollywood". It is filled with songs and dances, stylized artifice, idealized characters, myriad sub-plots, and an inspiring message.
Though technically not a musical, the joyous and hypnotic songs on the soundtrack are interwoven into the plot in a way that both enhances the drama and reminds you that it is "also" a movie. The direction is attributed to Prakash Arora, assistant to the "great showman" Raj Kapoor. The story, however, is that Kapoor took one look at the rush print and realized he had made a mistake in assigning it to Arora, then re-shot the entire film himself. It won the 1953/54 Filmfare awards (India's version of the Oscars) for best picture, best supporting actor, and best cinematography.
The story is about the relationship between a ten-year old boy, Bhola (Rhatan Kumar) and his seven-year old sister Belu (Baby Naaz). The children are without parents. They live in a slum area in Bombay with Kamla, a cold and unloving relative, and must beg to stay alive. Bhola and Belu undergo verbal and physical abuse from Kamla when they don't bring home enough money each day. Their only friend is a neighbor, John Chacha (David Ebrahim), who operates a bootlegging business outside the law. John Chacha provides the kids with the emotional warmth they need, and tells them not to beg but to find some work. "Starve, die, but don't beg. Do something with your two hands", he says, and instructs them in the art of polishing shoes.
Bhola and Belu gradually become proficient in their trade and eke out a living, refusing to take alms. Then the monsoon rains come, and their business suffers. In addition, John's arrest takes from them the little love and comfort they had. Beg or die - that is the question that the children must now face.
Some may dismiss the picture as melodrama, but I find it a life-affirming and rich cinematic experience. The love of the children for each other is very real, and their struggle for survival and social respectability is profoundly touching. Filled with positive energy and the "heroic face of innocence," Boot Polish is now more than ever one of my all time favorite films.