7 July 2012

Marvels of Malegaon

From my Indian Express op-ed:

Low on budget, high on joy, this little movie industry is special.

Malegaon is 296 kilometres from Mumbai, a dusty, nondescript place with a largely poor Muslim majority population and a power-loom weaving industry in crisis. But these are not the things most newspaper readers would know. Malegaon made headlines because of post-Babri riots in 1993 and has been much discussed for a series of bomb blasts in 2006. Faiza Ahmad Khan’s marvellous film Supermen of Malegaon, released in five Indian cities last week, highlights a less known side of Malegaon: its obsession with cinema.

Several reviewers have called Supermen a tribute to Malegaon’s movie-madness, and it is true that the place seems to live, breathe, dream cinema. The opening sequence splices together two images of Malegaon’s men: at work, operating the town’s power looms, and at leisure — knuckles and faces pressed up against the grills of a movie hall, waiting for the doors to open. The clickety-clack of the looms is also the ticking clock by which Malegaon’s labouring poor measure the time left for Friday, “Jumme ke roz”, when the looms shut down and the cinemas open. As one weaver says to Khan, “Apni zindagi mein agar yeh nahi mila, toh tasavvuron mein dekhein (If we haven’t got this in life, we can see it in our imaginations).”

Movies are the stuff of Malegaon’s fantasies; they enliven the everyday. For Rs 4 you can get a Titanic kite, or a Shah Rukh Khan one; for two rupees more you can have a Don kite, where Amitabh Bachchan’s new KBC avatar dwarfs his 1978 self. For Rs150, you can have your hair cut like Sanjay Dutt, back in the day when he still had hair. Even the boy performing sleight-of-hand tricks in the street has named his three pebbles Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukherjee.

But such film-love, fanatic as it is, would find an echo in many towns in India — Anurag Kashyap pays homage to something very like it in Gangs of Wasseypur, a world where some men model themselves on Amitabh and others sing like Rekha.

What makes Malegaon special is that some of these film fans have refused to remain in the thrall of the glittering spectacles that float down from Mumbai and Hollywood. In the early 2000s, an ex-video parlour owner and occasional wedding videographer called Shaikh Nasir decided to remake Sholay with a Malegaon touch. The unexpected success of Malegaon ke Sholay, where Gabbar became Rubber and Basanti became Basmati, led to the emergence of an industry that the town’s residents affectionately call Mollywood, and whose hits include Malegaon ki Shaan, Malegaon ka Rangeela and Malegaon ke Karan Arjun.

Nasir has no formal training. He shoots on a handicam and tells Khan he learnt “angles, lighting, everything” from watching English films. He got the idea of using Chroma (a digital compositing technique) from the “making of” section of a movie DVD. When someone in Mumbai quotes him a sum of Rs 2 lakh for the Chroma technology, he laughs a wry laugh: “I can make four films in that.” In 2008, when Faiza Khan filmed him, he was making Malegaon ka Superman on a budget of Rs 50,000. His costumes and green screen are made a by a local tailor, and the locals he casts acquire celebrity status. When Nasir gets an ad, the sponsors have been known to demand a role for their sons.

But what makes the films of Malegaon remarkable is the sensibility with which they are made. Spoken in the local zabaan, they have a sense of humour that’s unabashedly silly and sometimes oddly profound. If Malegaon ki Lagaan recast the Aamir Khan colonial-era drama as a historical comedy about local power supply, the scrawny Shaikh Shafique, playing Malegaon’s Superman, has asthma caused by urban pollution. Gags about small-town life abound. In one scene, Superman gets a call on his Tata mobile, but as usual there are network problems. So Superman says, “Wait.” He flies up, and then says, “Now go ahead.” In another ridiculous-but-brilliant scene, the villain announces that every Indian, “buddha, bachcha aur jawaan”, should be seen spitting in the streets, in restaurants, in toilets, everywhere. “Because I love gandagi,” he proclaims, in a deep-voiced parody of countless ’80s Hindi film villains.

Nasir and his colleagues know they’re amateurs, that their films will never take them beyond the video halls of Malegaon. But this knowledge coexists with a passionate commitment to making people laugh — a task they take very seriously indeed. Calling these films rip-offs, it seems to me, is plain wrong. They may draw on famous characters or plots, but they bring to them a spirit and sensibility that’s utterly their own. Malegaon’s spindly Superman, with his drawstring hanging out, serves a cinematic purpose that couldn’t be more different from the Hollywood superhero movie: he emerges from his audience. As they race their bicycles to get trolley shots, Malegaon’s filmmakers seem to me to display more integrity and innovation than much of Bollywood. As one Mollywood fan says, “We don’t have the facilities but we’re making films. We don’t have voices, but we’re singing. We have no weapons, but we’re fighting the war. And we’re even winning.”

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