Superman, Spiderman and India's 'local' cinema!

Last Updated: Tue, Jul 03, 2012 10:28 hrs

A place with a 'terror town' tag nurtures a vibrant film industry. Taking the cue from a documentary on the making of a feature film there, Satyen K Bordoloi profiles the town, the two films, their intrepid filmmakers and India's many 'Local Cinemas'.

An epic David vs Goliath battle is on between two superhero films on the Indian screens. The mighty Goliath is The Amazing Spider-man while the puny David with a few tiny stones in his pocket is the documentary Supermen of Malegaon.

To many, this comparison may seem farfetched. Perhaps it is. But it is one worth pursuing, for it puts not just the two films, but the entire passion for film-making and viewing, its relation to life and cinema in general into perspective.

Beyond the similarities - both have English names and reference two very popular, true (red and) blue American superheroes - they are as opposite as electrons and protons.

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One is a 136-minute special effects extravaganza, the other is a 66-minute funny documentary about a group of people trying to make a local, low-budget special effects spoof film called Malegaon Ka Superman.

One with a budget of $215 million was 4,500 times more expensive than the documentary with its $48,000 budget, and is about a feature film being made for a mere $2,000.

Spiderman calls itself the untold story even though you have seen the story before, and spends millions on publicity, while the other is an honest film about a group of self-deprecating, funny filmmakers that is relying mostly on free social media and word of mouth.

One is a global film made by one of the biggest studios ever, the other - an indie production about an absolutely pure indie film made by people with their own money.

One is being screened in over 1,000 screens with multiple daily shows in India itself, while the other is showing in barely 10 screen - with only one show a day in 7 cities.

One is about a fictional superhero while the other is about real men beating the odds to make a spoof about a similar superhero.

Over its life cycle, one will be seen by nearly a billion people, the other will be lucky if it is seen by a few thousand people.

Has there ever been a bigger, better David vs. Goliath battle on Indian cinematic shores? And shouldn't you, living as you are in a nation where cinema is supposed to be a religion, be interested, even if the comparisons sound exaggerated?

Spiderman

This fourth cinematic installment of Spiderman makes cosmetic changes to the 2002 original by Sam Raimi. Spiderman's sense of discovery of his powers, his teenage angst, his desire to know his parents, his love for a classmate, the discovery and experimentation of his powers, etc. are similar in both.

The only real changes are a new villain, a new love interest - his classmate Gwen Stacy who is Spiderman's first, true love in the comic books and the way he makes his webs. What's thus truly amazing is how it even got made and how the PR machinery has been going all over, calling it the untold story.

Empty vessels, it is said, make the loudest noise.

At its core, one can describe this film as the template of the original Spiderman mixed with few scattered elements taken from various films. For example, Stacy's concerned father has elements of the worried father from Twilight and Spiderman does a Batman by making his own gadgets.

Of course, the special effects are phenomenal, but still not such an advancement from the 2002 version. Despite leaps in certain areas, how much has SFX technology changed in a decade?

Comparatively, what could be special about a film made in Malegaon and a documentary made on the same? Plenty. Beginning with the town itself.

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Malegaon

With a population of around 1.2 million, Malegaon - 300 kilometres north of Maharashtra in its Nasik district - is your typical, chaotic mid-sized Indian town where bullocks run in a straight line through the middle of the road (which director Faiza Ahmad Khan captures and shows in the documentary). Where it differs is in its multiple and disparate identities, some of which have been forcefully slapped on it.

The town's polarisation, where its majority 75 per cent Muslim population lives on one side of the river that flows through it, is highly noticeable.

The Muslim population began swelling from 1740 when the town's landlord called in some of the nation's best artisans to build a fort. Most of them were Muslim. Its ability to attract migrant labour stayed and in the last 30-40 years has provided cheap labour for the power loom industry.

The migrant workers of the looms work in the unorganised sector, living in extremely dilapidated, often inhuman conditions, working their life away and being permanently woven into the power structure of the power loom industry.

Communal tensions began here in the 1960s. After a series of blasts in the city in the last decade, and a world fighting a 'war on terror' in desperate need of villains to vanquish, it found easy targets in this town. The press quickly labeled it the 'terror town'.

The police have been less then sympathetic and on October 26, 2001, they fired at people protesting the American invasion of Afghanistan. At least seven people died. Even now, every time there is a blast in Maharashtra, its roots are conveniently traced back to Malegaon and the police routinely pick up men with or without proof. Many die in custody. Who, if any, will mourn the missing migrants of Malegaon?

In this backdrop, every Friday, when the power loom's rhythmic beating fall silent for a day, its workers seek out escape from a brutal reality pushing from all sides and rush to the nearest cinema hall. In this mad rush of men, pushing and shoving their way into a cinema hall, the documentary Supermen of Malegaon begins.

Local cinema

'Escape from reality' is a strange beast. It desperately seeks the reality which it then escapes from. However, Global cinema, i.e. Hollywood, though dubbed in Hindi, is rooted in American ethos. National cinema, i.e. Bollywood, mostly inhabits its own fairyland, aloof from the lives and strife of its huge and disparate viewership.

The third layer - regional cinema, i.e. Marathi cinema in this case, also fails to capture the unique reality of a town like Malegaon.

The escapist cinema that plays in Malegaon, thus fails to establish and thus escape the 'Malegaon' brand of reality. In this need of Malegaon, and dozens of other towns in India, is born the fourth and the most unique layer of cinema - the 'Local Cinema'.

Far away from the media spotlight, India has developed dozens of such self-sufficient, self-taught local film industries in places like Ladakh in J&K, Kurukshetra in Haryana, Munger in Bihar, Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, Imphal in Manipur (where films are screened in football stadiums), Malegaon in Maharashtra, etc. The commonality - films are made in the true spirit of democracy: 'for', 'of' and 'by' the people of these towns.

There isn't an exact count, but anywhere between 200 and 500 feature films are made in these centres, films that are under the radar of 'Indian Cinema' or its various popular subsets. The film industry of Malegaon becomes a representation of the many 'Local Cinemas' of India.

Every year anywhere between 30-50 feature length films, and many hour long episodes, stand-up acts and the rare TV series get made here, making it a truly bustling local film industry. This and the many cultural programs, its many planned and impromptu mushayaras and mehfils (poetry recitation events) held in local halls or around warm winter fires that go on through the night, give this town a rich cultural atmosphere, rarely captured by journalists who rush into town after every incident of alleged terror anywhere else.

"Nasir (Shaikh Nasir - director of Malegaon Ka Superman, the film whose making is tracked by this documentary) was very clear that he did not want to talk about the terror angle because he thought that this is all everyone is interested in, without ever caring for Malegaon's other identities," Faiza Ahmad Khan says.

So uninterested was he in this angle, that he cut out a scene of Superman stopping a Hindu-Muslim riot to dissuade Faiza from pursuing it.

The terror angle is thus visibly missing from the documentary. But this proves to be a masterstroke because the over emphasis on this by the rest of the world and a near absence of it in the documentary, with its focus instead on the other cultural aspects, makes the strongest comment against the stereotyping of the town.

It shows and thus asks people to look beyond the prejudices they have of the town, and its majority community.

Nasir now jokes that every time someone searches for Malegaon on Google, what comes first is his or Faiza's film and not the links associating it with terror.

Malegaon's inspiring Supermen

Inspired by the lack of cinema rooted in their ethos, a few intrepid and ingenious 'men' of Malegaon decided to make films themselves. Thus were made films, mostly comedies, both spoofs of popular Bollywood films like Malegaon Ke Sholay, Malegaon Ki Darr, Malegaon Ka Don, Malegaon Ka Ghajni, etc. and original ones like Khandesh Ki Barat, Chicha Ki Hotel, etc. and called their tiny film industry 'Mollywood'.

In attributing their original source, they become more honest than Bollywood. Imagine Bollywood honestly calling its first film to make Rs 100 crore at the box office, Ghajni, Bollywood Ka Memento - inspired as it by Christopher Nolan's film.

One crazy film fanatic of Malegaon, who turned director with Malegaon ke Sholay - shot and edited in the now defunct VHS format in 2002 and made for Rs 50,000 - is Shaikh Nasir, the hero of our little documentary. He declares on screen, "We have tackled Bollywood. It's now time to take on Hollywood."

He takes it upon himself the impossible task of making the first Hollywood spoof of Malegaon. He also understands that he has to make Superman fly else the film will not work. So he scouts for ideas, technology, men, props, technical information, etc. to make his vision come to life.

Nasir wonders about the many people who work in one film. 'At the end of the day it is one man's vision and his film,' he says. He logically discovers auteur theory without ever reading Andre Bazin.

We see the rest of the cast and crew, the introspective, moody and hilarious writer Akram Khan who talks about the pains of a writer and how only 20 per cent of what a writer thinks ever materialises on screen; Shafique Shaikh the perennially scared and startled power loom worker who ironically plays Superman; Farogh Jafri who talks about his dream of going to Bollywood and how he has been metaphorically travelling the 300 kilometres distance for 15 years. The rest of the crew is as funny, unique and contemplative, but are all driven by the impossible dream to make cinema.

Rootedness

There is something beautiful in the way they go about writing the film and how they weave social issues into it. Their Superman is not one who solves great crimes or saves the world. Despite his superpowers, he is asthmatic and has to take breaks between flying because of the pollution.

He solves the problems of the common masses. Of course he fights the bad guys, whose boss is a Gutka baron who hilariously roars 'I love gandagi (filth)' and there's a woman involved, but in the end, the problem of the common man of Malegaon is its Superman's problems.

The filmmakers find hilarious ways to bring in various issues. When Superman gets bad cell phone reception below a telephone tower, he excuses himself for a second, flies to the top of the tower and resumes talking. When electricity goes, as it does every day in Malegaon, he fires up the power looms with his super powers.

There seems to be an innate understanding with the makers, a very earthen rootedness where they intuitively understand that the world is actually saved by solving local problems.

The documentary is equally rooted. It makes oblique comments on the poverty, squalor, children of the town, condition of women in Muslim society of the town and their lack of education etc. thus making it as poignant as it is funny.

Jugaad

At the root of it, the documentary is about the insane love of the movies, both the watching and making kind. It captures the passion of a few intrepid souls who may not have studied cinema or its techniques but are ingenious enough to find ways to express their passions.

'Jugaad' is a local Indian word which means finding local, mostly intermediary solutions, to problems. This magical ability of Indians of looking at things laterally, in this case in filmmaking, is on ample display in the documentary.

Thus Nasir makes his green chroma keying sheet (a light green background used to create special effects) from locally sourced cloth, stitched by a tailor who has no clue what he is making.

He uses a big truck to plop this backdrop. In a hilarious sequence, we see our crew meticulously cut up Superman's red boxer shorts and another man's jeans to hoist them, groins first, through an iron bar before the green chroma screen to show them flying. We see Nasir using a cycle as a trolley and an empty bullock cart as a jimmy jib.

The documentary thus becomes an inspiring study in ingenuity, of the 'jugaad' of a die-hard but untrained film crew and their intense desire and ability to conjure up tricks to create magic on screen with a frugal, micro budget. It becomes living proof that there's literally no end to human ingenuity.

In an inspiring way, Faiza's documentary shows you the innocence of making cinema and you realise that this is how filmmaking everywhere can and should be - a work of passion first and foremost. Commercial considerations can come later.

Irony, satire and humour

Director Faiza Ahmad Khan has an observant eye and an ability to connect seemingly unconnected things to present scenes that leave you in splits.

A bullock runs in a straight line bang in the middle of a busy road. An old Muslim man who accidently walks into the sets where a woman is acting, looks in and says that it is not permitted (by his scriptures) that he even see this.

As the feature film crew's lone camera falls in the water, the cast and crew get busy tending to it even as our Superman lies forgotten, floating in the middle of the river on an inflated truck tyre tube, trying to paddle himself ashore with his slippers.

Shafique Shaikh who plays Superman, is not just the lead but also a crew. You laugh watching him help create the frugal sets and realise this is how actors should be in a film - a part of the huge crew of the film (not necessarily a working extra), and not your over glamorised 'stars' with excessive sense of self-worth.

Shafique in reality is frail and seems to have an old enmity with gravity as he keeps falling all the time, sometimes in a ditch, other times in the river. His falls are often without provocation and mostly he is the one who needs saving - like a line in a very catchy song in the film says '…Superman ko bachale yaar' (someone please save superman).

In a sad irony of fate, this screen Superman who fought a gutka baron, was himself addicted to it and died of throat cancer in 2011.

Faiza juxtaposes the images of a man dressed and made up as a woman for the film, washing clothes as another man comments that sure women can work but only in the home because that too is work. Malegaon, in this sense, sounds more like 'Male-gaon' (male village).

Yet, the greatest humour and irony of the film is slightly 'off screen'. The crew making the documentary had better equipment than the feature film crew (you can often see the boom mike in the docu, something which you also see that Nasir does not have). The budget of the documentary was 24 times the budget of Nasir's film.

While the documentary was being shot on HDV cameras with three cameras rolling simultaneously, Nasir was making his feature film with only one 1 CCD camera. Thus when Nasir's camera falls in the water, seriously jeopardising its fate, the documentary crew are tempted to lend them a camera, but decide against it and they record them finding a solution.

It is these quirks, little observations, the gentle snides and allegories, these things which are not intended but are a part of the film either inside or outside, that makes it extremely dense and seemingly much longer than its actual duration. That it is one of the funniest documentaries ever made is an added bonus.

Faiza Ahmad Khan's journey

The documentary is a tour de force mostly because of its quiet, reticent-to-a-fault director Faiza Ahmad Khan. This Sophia Polytechnic pass-out, originally from Jaipur, had Bollywood dreams. She started assisting in making ad films but did not want to sell other peoples products all her life.

She quit and began assisting a Bollywood director. Here she saw firsthand how producers, whose only concern is recovery of investment, interfere with the art of filmmaking and the director. During this time of disillusionment, she read about the indigenous and ingenious film industry of Malegaon, and their pure and innocent passion for cinema above all else.

Her journey, to make this documentary, wasn't half as tough as Nasir's journey to make his feature. A meeting with Nasir and his team gave her the idea that was a mix of funny, profound, sad and inspiring. She talked to a friend, Gargey Trivedi, who knew about 'The Asian Pitch' in Singapore. They got their fund right in the first pitch.

The men making Malegaon Ka Superman, who had never had a female Muslim co-worker, took some time to get used to the idea that Faiza, a Muslim woman, could and indeed was, the director. "Initially it did not even occur to them that I could be the director. They thought I was part of the crew,” she says. In the end they accepted her.

Says she, "I guess they judge their own women and women from outside - even if they are Muslim - differently." She remembers a guy who shook her hand and expressed his pride at seeing a Muslim woman direct a film, but wouldn't allow women in his own family to work.

Though non-interference was the key, Faiza, a fearless activist who has recently been documenting the resistance of tribals in Orissa and slum dwellers in Mumbai against corporate land grab, couldn't sit quiet at these anti-women sentiments. She fought with Nasir, leading him to accuse her of interfering. "You cannot expect centuries of tradition to change overnight," she says with a resigned tone only to add enthusiastically, "but it is important to bring these issues out."

Having seen the workings of Bollywood where good writers and directors struggle decades before landing a film, she is content with documentary at the moment. "Right now I am leaning more towards micro community media. It's not that I am not passionate about fictional cinema. I just don't have that kind of patience or burning ambition to do that. I am very happy with documentaries. But who knows I might dabble in fiction when the opportunity presents,” she says.

Two weeks back, while shooting for another documentary in Mumbai's Sion-Koliwada slum - that's in the midst of a struggle between a powerful builder and the place's legitimate dwellers - she was assaulted by goons of the builder.

The police initially refused to file an FIR but relented after pressure from journalists. Even when pressed to use this real incident to create some press buzz to promote her documentary, she refused believing in letting her film do the talking.

The quiet, gentle but highly talented Khan is thus no competition to the directorial 'Khans' of Bollywood (Farah, Kabir, Sajid, etc.). At least not yet. But it is destiny indeed that a dislike for monetary considerations over filmmaking craft could lead a filmmaker to make a film on another filmmaker whose last concern is recovering money. As Nasir says in the documentary, "All I want is to make people happy. The route I choose is by making films that make them laugh."

Why it's a must watch

Supermen of Malegaon is a film about the uncounted, unaccounted underbelly of Indian cinema. It's a funny, poignant ode to the love of the movies; it's a love poem to the creation of everything cinematic and the story of the underdog's victory.

With no fancy sets and no million dollar equipment or effects, the feature film Malegaon Ka Superman manages to make Superman fly. The documentary, too, is by far the funniest film, all things and films considered, on Indian screens this year so far.

It thus makes you realise that India has the greatest film culture in the world not because of the 1,100 odd films that get censored annually but because beyond the global, national and regional cinema of India, there's a Local Cinema, with films written, produced and consumed in small towns across the country.

India has a vibrant film culture because its documentary filmmakers "...explore strange new worlds... seek out new (cinematic) life forms... (and) boldly go where no man has gone before."

Don't watch either of the films because you think the self sufficient, Gandhian and plebeian film industry of Malegaon needs your patronage. Watch it because, bored of the same worn out formulas, you need a new infusion of variety on your cinematic table.

Watch it because the perils and the dangers, the struggles, the agony and the ecstasy of filmmaking, have rarely been captured with such rawness and honesty. It is in the best tradition of films about making films from the moody and contemplative 8 and half of Federico Fellini to the fun, seemingly frivolous ride of Michel Gondry's 'Be Kind, Rewind'.

It's thus an irony that it releases in the same week as The Amazing Spiderman - the untold story. For it is another satire that it is actually Supermen of Malegaon that has an amazing, untold story being told for the first time. Spiderman the world has seen on three previous occasions.

Sadly, it is only in mythology that a David wins over Goliath. But if your heart beats for cinema and everything cinematic, you will find that this is a film that comes once in a lifetime. And even though you know it isn't possible, you'll still scream and root for the puny David to win, as I do in this little farfetched, perhaps over-compared piece of writing.

In reality though, Superman of Malegaon isn't competing with The Amazing Spiderman. It stands tall and firm, in a league of its own.

(Because of this documentary that won many awards in global film festivals, Sheikh Nasir got to make a TV series for Sab TV called Malegaon Ka Chintu. He had a premier show of Malegaon Ka Superman, but this hilarious spoof was lapped up by the producers Bohra Bros. who will give it a national release a few months from now. It is perhaps the first time that a film made in a local film industry, will get such a widespread, national release.)

(Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.)