Supermen Of Malegaon is a documentary film that follows a group of intrepid filmmakers in Malegaon, Maharashtra as they attempt to make Malegaon ka Superman; transposing the Man of Steel onto the landscape of a town known for its power looms and power cuts, and its communal riots. While the idea was to record this astonishing journey from a dream to a finished film, it is also a record of the people trying to make the film, and of Malegaon itself, and their hopes and their fears, and the charm and grace with which they live their lives. After winning a spate of awards at festivals across the World the film is finally due for its theatrical release in India, 4 years after it was made. Here’s an excerpt from the conversation with Faiza Ahmad Khan, the director of the film.
Tell us something about the Malegaon film industry?
Most of the people in Malegaon are crazy about cinema. With a crippled economy and twelve-hour power-cuts every day, films have become the principal way to pass the time. There are twelve cinema halls and twice as many video halls. There are fan-clubs everywhere. On Fridays, after the Jumma namaaz, there is a stampede outside the theatres. Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty continue to remain the crowd favorites even today at Malegaon.
In the middle of this, about twelve years ago, Nasir- who used to shoot and still shoots wedding videos, and used to run a video parlour- finally decided that he should make a film. He picked the biggest hit of all time, Sholay and made a spoof of it. Made on a budget of Rs 50,000, the film was a massive hit in Malegaon. The famous robbery sequence was done with dacoits on bicycles trying to rob a bus. And it kind of set the template for the work that has followed. The film industry in Malegaon is a cottage industry, and these are handmade films, done on ridiculously low budgets, localized to Malegaon, about things and films that people dreamt up in their free time. As a result, there is an extraordinary degree of innovation- cycles used for tracking shots and bullock carts for crane shots. But the greatest trick the Malegaon filmmakers employ is their street-smart transposition of these famous films to local situations and problems. And now are many groups, with fluid and constantly changing crews, who continue to make these films.
What took you to Malegaon and how did you get the idea for the film?
Well I had earlier worked on a feature film, Anwar as A.D with Manish Jha and at the end of the project I somehow wasn’t entirely satisfied with the whole experience. I was probably on the lookout to do something else that I would probably relate to and appreciate better. That was the time when I got to hear of the film industry in Malegaon and hence decided to visit the place. We got to Malegaon hoping to capture the local industry making a film. Instead, we discovered a series of characters who were compelling, very human, brave and funny at the same time. So, suddenly, this film industry in the hinterland is populated by fascinating people. And then you start to uncover the strange dynamic of the place. The power looms that have been crippled by the twelve hour power cuts. An economy and a town in tatters. A place that is obsessed with cinema; it is the only real entertainment, and people will queue for hours to get into cinemas and video halls, where they play old movies, dubbed movies, strange B and C international releases. A place with a history of communal violence. Hindu and Muslim population neatly divided by the river that flows through the center of the town. A thriving film industry run solely by the Muslim population. A strict policy about not letting local women work in those films. And all of it located in this forbidding, half-surreal landscape. So then the film became about capturing these Supermen in this Malegaon.
What drew you to the idea?
Well I found it amazing that they were planning to make a Superman film in such a low budget and in such a unique fashion. And then it struck me as to why not? After all isn’t it a universal theme-that of the underdog fighting against all odds and emerging triumphant at the end. Consider these things about the film- at one point; Superman has to fly upwards because the cell-phone reception in Malegaon is so bad. And he falls ill because the pollution is so bad. The villain is obsessed with dirt and filth, because that is what ails their world. These films are enormously successful, they’re hits with their target audiences, and yet they’re funny, vivid and come from a unique viewpoint. And everyone who heard about the idea before we went over to film the documentary was very intrigued about the premise. And everyone who watched the film eventually reacted to this absurd, good-humored sense of bravery that seems to be the biggest take-home from our film. You would think that capturing a group of men trying to make a film in Malegaon would largely be comic. Instead, what we saw and hopefully were able to capture, was a very moving experience. We watched them as they fought past this bad hand that life and the State has dealt them. Nothing fazed them. Not the idea, the scale, the ambition, their backgrounds, the stunning lack of resources. They found a way past everything. And, of course, once we discovered that they had moved beyond Bollywood and were ready to take on Hollywood, that they had set their eyes on Superman, the idea was just irresistible.
How was it shooting another film crew, considering it was like a film within a film?
Well Nasir and his team initially felt a bit strange to be seeing us shoot them while filming Malegaon Ka Superman. They were used to seeing film crews, even International film crews coming over for a few days in Malegaon and hence thought we’d leave in three or four days, perhaps like a news crew or something. But we hung around for three months. And we were not only filming the filmmaking process, but their lives as well. So we’d be there, at Nasir’s (the director of Malegaon Ka Superman) house every morning, with our cameras. At some point, he even got a little exasperated with us. But he understood, maybe as a film maker himself, that we needed to do this if we were to get under the skin of the city to better understand the men who from that city who would push themselves so hard for something that seemed sort of trivial at first. I’m glad that we moved beyond that, beyond his initial exasperation, because that was when so many things started to become accessible to us. And we also spent a lot of time there, under fairly unusual circumstances. We became as much part of their process of making the film. Eventually, it led to a rapport and that enabled us to exist like flies on the wall.
How did you manage to get funding for the film?
Siddharth, my co-producer, and I went to Malegaon and met Nasir- the director of Malegaon ka Superman- and his gang of collaborators. These are all people who have day-jobs, all these mundane things they do to put food on the table. And, in their free time, they dream of making films. And then they make them. On the way we speculated that if there was a film that we might want to see these fantastic real-life characters make, then Superman would top that list. In the first ten minutes of our meeting Nasir said that there was a film that he wanted to make and that film was Malegaon ka Superman. The signs were all pointing in one direction. And we were on. We shot some footage for about 3-4 days and then we came back to Mumbai.
Later we narrated the entire idea and the experience to a friend who told his friend, Gargey, who in turn came on board as co-producer and we pitched it to the Asian Pitch in Singapore, which is a collaboration of three TV networks in Asia- Mediacorp, KBS and NHK. They loved the idea, we won the pitch and got full funding. In literally two weeks, from being just an idea in my head, we had funding for the film. And a month later, we were in Malegaon, filming. But in hindsight there’s also a flipside to the funding we received. Due to the involvement of the Asian Pitch we had to make the film a lot simpler than I’d have actually preferred. I couldn’t really focus on local issues like politics of Malegaon.
So how the journey was after the funding came in? Tell us about the technical aspects as well.
We didn’t go in with a set script. There were a few basic guidelines – the idea was to largely observe the process, the idea was to be a fly on the wall. We were going to document the filmmaking process and the lives of the people making that film. We had to find our own rhythm as a working unit under adverse conditions. We had to earn the trust of our subjects. We had to resist the temptation to help out with their film, because that would have altered the experience. It became a little difficult for us to decide what to shoot and what not to shoot, because there was so much happening around the film and the people we were filming with. We were there for about 3 months in Malegaon (except for 2 short breaks of a week each in between) and most of it went into shooting. By the end of the shoot, we had about 250 hours of footage. We had to edit those 250 hours down to a 52 min film. And we had a deadline that was two months away. Enter Shweta Venkat who’s now also edited of Gangs of Wasseypur and she helped me complete the journey. The editing took around 6 weeks to completel I shot the film using Sony Z1 and D1. Including the sound recordist and boom guy we were about 6 people on ground while shooting the film.
What are your thoughts on the way forward for the film?
Well frankly as of now my mind is a bit blank as I’m still trying to internalize the fact that the film is finally getting a theatrical release in India 4 years after it got made. It’s already done well in the festival circuit and now making it to theatres here. In this duration of 4 years a lot of people have seen the film during screenings or through various other means. Now probably what could be explored is online distribution and DVD’s.
Can you narrate any interesting details that occurred while filming?
Oh!lots of them but let me start with the cinema halls and video parlours. The old Agneepath, starring Mithun and Amitabh Bachchan, is still a favourite and played regularly in Malegaon. The Mithun fans will sit together on one side of the aisle and the Amitabh fans will sit together on the other side and there is a competition about who is louder. They set off fireworks inside the hall. The halls actually have ‘pathake le jaana mana hai’ written outside.
And whenever there would be a power cut in the evening people would gather at tea stalls and indulge in shayari and mushairas would begin, with all and sundry joining in. There are a couple of stories about Shafique, who ended up playing the scrawny superhero in Malegaon ka Superman. He was largely the butt of all jokes because of his physique, but he thought it the greatest honour of his life to play Superman. And he worked as hard as anyone on the film. Including being thrown into a river repeatedly, not knowing how to swim. I remember him standing there, shivering, almost like he had hypothermia. They had to wrap him up in blankets in the makeshift changing room, and let him sit for a while before he could walk properly. And later, he provided another, much more amusing distraction, when his family decided that he was getting married. It didn’t matter if he was still in the middle of playing Superman. The shoot stopped for a few days to allow him to get married. Nasir worried endlessly about the colour of Shafique’s skin changing because of the haldi ceremony. And Shafique bore it all with good humour, because he genuinely believed this film was the best thing that happened to him. It is terribly unfortunate that he recently passed away. He had oral cancer from chewing tobacco, ironically the same thing he fights as Superman in the film.
Here’s the trailer of the film-
Note- Supermen of Malegaon releases on 29th June across select theatres in India. We at MAM wish Faiza Ahmad Khan and the entire team of Supermen of Malegaon all the very best.