Shoebox takes place on the cusp of Allahabad, in a frenzied hate-wave, being renamed Prayagraj. Shuttered single screen theatres are occupied and taken over by local goon-politicians. Amitabh Bachchan's mural on a wall is shadowed by blooming real estate. But in the thickening condensate of political and cultural change, Shoebox is ultimately an intimate portrait of a father and a daughter jostling for love and understanding. It is without doubt one of the finest, most present movies of our time.
By present, I don't just mean that it is of this time. Shoebox, like another indie favourite, Aditya Vikram Sengupta's Once Upon A Time In Calcutta, is not just a film but also a work of cultural criticism, of archiving a city in a moment of flux. Both films use the theatre as a space where modern instincts and the yearning of heritage jostle for attention. Both films refuse to elevate their politics to a moral tale, letting them play out with a casual grime. These films are, what art critic Jason Farago recently called, with respect to still-life art, "intimate realism, whose exactitude went hand in hand with a sort of lived-in serenity", as opposed to gritty tales girded by horror and despair.
Udbhav Agarwal was writing about Allahabad in his book A For Prayagraj around the same time director Faraz Ali was making this movie — when the Kumbh was being resurrected, what Udbhav calls "The Disneyland of Hinduism …[where] canvas tent with hollowed bamboo spines lined the loam in neat files". Udbhav looks over Shastri Bridge at the tents, the way the protagonist of Shoebox, Mampu (Amrita Bagchi), does, with a kneading doubt — the kind that can only come from a former-insider, by a person whose roots are slowly becoming inscrutable. Like reaching home, only to be confronted with repositioned furniture, stubbing your toe onto a table leg, where once air was. Is it still home? Amrita Bagchi's body moves with a documentary-like ease, a feral lived-in-ness, the ho-s and hmm-s, the blank stares and the pursed lips, the one second of thought between the question asked and the answer given.
Mampu has just returned from Pune where she is pursuing her PhD — in what exactly, we are not told — to look after her father, a crabby widower who smokes himself sick, a Bengali in Allahabad (Purnendu Bhattacharya) who holds onto the crumbling single screen theatre. Why hold onto dead heritage? The answer is never simple, and Shoebox doesn't attempt at simplifying what is a complicated intuition — a mixture of nostalgia, grieving, respect, responsibility, arrogance, stubbornness, laziness, fear of the world that is revving ahead too fast with nothing left to hold onto.
This story is burst through by ruptures of memory that come to the surface, a childhood friendship that survives adulthood, snatches of political commentary, a performance by folk singer Alha Samrat Faujdar Singh, and the titular shoebox, a metaphor that reaches back to the myth of Saraswati — her iconography usually has a box which contains her memories as a river, made literal in this movie when the shoebox holds old photographs — and yet none of these diversions feel like distractions, because the story isn't about one thing, one person, or one city. It is all of it, pushed together into a crowded peak-hour train compartment.
There is something both clumsy and charming about this. I am thinking of the small diversion in a scene where Mampu is complaining about her father to an owner of a shop, sitting inside, and the camera takes you out of that conversation, focusing instead on a transaction taking place, of a man wanting movies to be uploaded to his mobile. We see the selection of films being made: Race 2, Rowdy Rathore, Jolly LLB, Avengers (Hindi), Bang Bang, Dhoom 2, Happy New Year, Jai Ho, PK, Kick. The introduction of Amitabh Bachchan's Mard plays out in a stretch as little Mampu stares at the big screen with her friend. I felt like I was one with her, at the theatre watching Mard, and when Shoebox cuts to another scene progressing its story, my mind was still tugging at the image Bachchan's chest branded with the word "Mard", while the title credits roll, in Devnagari, Roman, Nastaliq. So much of our time is archived in the movies we see and produce.
This often means that you end up with scenes that don't complete their emotional point. When, during a fight Mampu, now an adult, asks her father if he will beat her as he did when she was a child, and like a petulant, pouting baby the father says yes, the dialogue and the past violence remains suspended. Nothing feels resolved at the end of the film, because true to the life it is archiving, nothing is ever truly resolved. Cities are named, renamed, populations churn around geographies, heritage is lost, heritage is made, and ultimately, both fatalism and fondness, birdsong and brutality will course through cultures and citizens with neither logic nor lark. All we can do is, like Shoebox, be diligent, discerning spectators.