If you get the chance to watch Supermen of Malegaon this weekend, do it.
Don’t do it because it’s the worthy thing to do like eating bran flakes.
Don’t do it because of pity. Oh, it’s a little documentary film and one must support the little guy.
Do it because you’ll actually give yourself a treat. Yes, even in a week that's bringing us Spiderman (again).
In Hollywood it’s a bird! It’s a plane. It’s Superman. Here it’s more like: It’s a goat! It’s an autorickshaw. It’s Malegaon ka Superman.
The Supermen of Malegaon has all the ingredients of a laugh out loud spoof except Malegaon is a very real place. “I had only known Malegaon through news reports on bomb blasts, terrorism and communal violence,” says director Faiza Ahmad Khan. But she discovered that it was also the hub for home-spun one-hour knockoffs of superhits done on a less-than-shoestring budget: Malegaon ke Sholay, Malegaon ki Shaan.
“(The films) were a labour of love, not for money. It was a community endeavour - everyone seemed to participate in some way. Technical hurdles were overcome by the the most astonishing improvisations,” recalls Khan. For example, the special effects in Malegaon ka Superman include bodily carrying Superman as he crashes into the back of an autorickshaw. Here the man of steel is rather tiny. He floats down the river in a tire and shares screen time with goats.
Khan says she went to meet Nasir (think of him as the Malegaon ka Manmohan Desai), the auteur behind these films, with the idea of asking him to re-make Superman and letting her film him. She even brought a couple of Superman DVDs with her. “But in the first ten minutes of meeting he told us that there was one film that he really wanted to make and that was Superman. He then proceeded to narrate his script at which point very sheepishly, I slid the DVDs back into my bag.”
Supermen of Malegaon is the story of the making of Malegaon ka Superman. That could have been funny enough but Khan says that’s not the film she wanted to make. “I was scared it would end up looking like we were making fun of their way of doing things,” she says. “We really made the film because we were overawed by the characters and their way of functioning.”
In the process the documentary becomes a fascinating look at the role cinema plays in small town India. “In Malegaon, after work there is not much to do. It’s an industrial town. Most people work in power-looms. The only sources of entertainment are video halls and cinemas. That’s where they flock to,” says Khan.
“Some even spend all their savings watching the same film over and over again.” For someone like Khan, with a background in ad films and indie cinema, it was a revelation. These people, many of them just paanchvi pass had learned to make films by just watching them. “In Malegaon, I'd think more than the rest of India, cinema is a religion. It was mindboggling, the power cinema, even if it’s a ‘leave your brains at home’ kind of a film, wields on people. Cinema has the power to disarm you.”
That’s not to say Supermen of Malegaon is just a wide-eyed low-rent Cinema Paradiso about the magic of cinema. This is a town where communal tensions are real. There’s a Hindu side of town and a Muslim side of town. You hardly see any women in the theatres. “Even in the films that they make in Malegaon, women are not allowed to participate at all,” says Khan. “Female parts are either played by men, or actresses from other towns. Women are used like props or just to increase the sex appeal of the film. Anyway Malegaon isn’t really high on women’s rights. To let women act in films is an abomination.”
Khan and her team lets Malegaon be Malegaon. That’s probably the secret of its success as a film. Over the last four years the documentary has picked up a slew of awards at international film festivals from the Karachi International to the Asian Film Festival in Rome. But its toughest journey was coming home to India.
“Distributing it was more of a production than making it,” says Khan. She never dreamed it would even get to a theatrical release. It was made for Singapore television and she had thought that would be the end of the story. “But it assumed a life of its own over the years,” she says. “The only thing left for it was to release in India. But that never seemed possible. I would keep trying to move on. But then I would get an email from someone saying they loved it and asking when would it be shown in India and I’d feel I should try a little harder. It was frustrating to know that you had a film that people would enjoy but not be able to get it to them. ”
It’s still mission (almost) impossible to release a documentary in India. Khan has turned distributor herself which means she and her team have to go to theatres and slap up the posters. “But four years ago there was nowhere to put it out even on your own,” she says. “All you could do was show it in colleges. A lot has changed in four years.”
A lot has also changed for the real supermen of Malegaon as well. The buzz around the documentary got Bohra Bros. to pick up the distribution rights for Malegaon ka Superman. Nasir got an offer to direct a 26 episode series from a television channel. The actor who plays the villain got himself a big budget Marathi film. But in life, as in film, ironies abound. In Malegaon ka Superman Superman fights against the nefarious villain who wants to set up a gutka empire. Shafique, the actor who played Superman died after the film was made. “He died of mouth cancer from chewing tobacco,” says Khan.