June 29, 2012
Faiza Ahmad Khan
Sheikh Nasir, Shafique, Akram Khan, Farogh Jafri
Of all the things in the world that I least expected to happen, I did not expect a hilarious documentary on the making of a low-budget film in small-town India to make me cry. Yet it did. Supermen of Malegaon is director Faiza Ahmed Khan’s loving and poetic ode to the wild, inexplicable passion that drives an impoverished group of people in Maharashtra’s Malegaon city/town to make films for their local audience. Khan’s docu-feature is funny, it’s sad, it’s immensely entertaining. It’s poignant, it’s comical, it’s heart-breaking and hysterical. It’s socially conscious and politically aware, it’s got a feminist voice and chronicles a communal divide. It’s an ode to the human spirit. It’s a celebration of creative prosperity in the midst of poverty. Over and above everything else, it’s more simple than you would imagine after reading the paragraph that has just gone by.
Supermen of Malegaon follows Malegaon’s Sheikh Nasir as he makes his very own feature film titled Malegaon ka Superman. When we first meet him, Nasir has already tasted success with Malegaon ka Sholay for which, he proudly tells us, tickets were even sold in black in the town. Like that film, his latest too will be a comedy, a spoof on a classic because, as we are told early on in this documentary, the poor people of Malegaon need a break from their hard lives when they enter a theatre, they need a fantasy in which they can imagine themselves.
Nasir’s Malegaon is a beautifully disturbing mini-India where people work at powerlooms because means of livelihood are limited and where Hindu-Muslim tensions govern lives. Yet, contrary to our expectations, not everyone wants to “escape”. The scrawny, pencil-thin Shafique who plays Superman in Nasir’s film works the looms for a want of options, but dreams of playing an Amitabh Bachchan in an entire film some day. His co-star who plays Superman’s opponent is also the computer graphics expert on the crew – despite the successful little shop he runs in Malegaon, he also wants to go to Bollywood but is wise enough not to compromise the good thing he’s got going here at home. Nasir, however, is different. He is happy doing what he’s doing and never wants to leave.
That’s a relief, of course, because no one else would have either the ingenuity, the sense of humour, the doggedness or the mad love for cinema and for his own people to make the films he does against the odds he faces. His Superman is not our regular flying superhero: he’s asthmatic because of the pollution that clouds Malegaon. Nasir’s present-day struggles hark back to what we can only imagine must have been the battles Dadasaheb Phalke fought when he made India’s first full-length feature film Raja Harishchandra a century back. Nasir works on a microscopically small budget but even for that he borrows money from friends and family. Since jimmy jibs, trolleys and virtual studios are out of the question, he inventively uses bullock carts, assistants pushing him on bicycles and an imaginatively set up green screen. The town’s majority Muslim population would never let their women work in films, so he imports an actress from Dhulia to play his heroine. Make no mistake about it: this man is a genius. With money that would be considered small change even by the smallest small film maker in Mumbai – that’s less than 300 km away – Nasir still figures out ways to make his Superman fly. And when his camera falls into a pond one day, his heart stops … as did mine … because by this point I wanted so desperately that he should manage to finish his film!
Supermen of Malegaon could have adopted a patronising tone towards small-town folk or exoticised Malegaon for big-city viewers. That Faiza Ahmed Khan does nothing of the sort is just one of her many achievements in this incredibly layered yet incredibly simple film. Then there is the fact that despite the allure of these men’s struggles, she is not unquestioning in her approach to them: Is it legitimate to copy a concept from a foreign source and make it their own? Will they get permission to shoot at a certain location or will they go ahead even without a go-ahead? She asks and gets answers, sometimes hesitant, sometimes firm, but always given.
So does Nasir Sheikh manage to complete his film? Well, that’s for you to find out in this engaging documentary about his heart-warming journey. Supermen of Malegaon has travelled to festivals worldwide since 2008, earning a bag-full of well-deserved accolades. That it has miraculously managed to get a full-fledged release in mainstream theatres in India is a sign of changing distributor attitudes and audience interest here. As we celebrate 100 Years of Indian cinema, there can be no better gift to our film-crazed nation than this superb film.
Rating (out of five): ****1/2
Running Time: 64 minutes
Photograph courtesy: http://www.facebook.com/SupermenOfMalegaon