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In a city overrun by social and economical issues, escapism comes in the form of modest video remakes of popular Bollywood and Hollywood films that are showcased in makeshift screening rooms and greeted to endless applause by a cinema-crazy local audience.
Obsession with films runs high in these parts: from posters lining every public wall to kites made of posters (price based strictly on the popularity of the actor featured) and also, naturally, spills over into filmmaking. Chronicling this industrial town’s singular romance with the craft is director Faiza Ahmad Khan’s lovely little documentary titled Supermen of Malegaon.
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Khan’s small team follows the making of a film titled Malegaon ka Superman which, as is easy to guess, is a remake of the original Superman starring Christopher Reeve. Armed with a handycam and building on the success of his Malegaon ka Sholay, local filmmaker Shaikh Nasir’s ambition – despite his lack of knowhow and funds – is no less superhero-like.
In his Superman he casts a power loom worker, Shaikh Shafique, who grabs his shot at being famous by stepping into a customized suit with loose red boxers and complete with an ‘M’ logo. Unfortunately for Shafique, because of a lack of resources his job description goes a beyond being simply an actor. On different occasions he is made to carry props, is forgotten mid-shot and left helplessly in the middle of a pond as everyone fusses over a wet camera, and made to do his own painful ‘stunts’; Nasir allowing him his only discretion when he has to get married at the cost of two days that could otherwise be used for filming.
This is the funniest film I’ve seen in a while, and yet it is laced with the kind of irony and pathos that, should you for even a moment sidestep the superficial aspect, will make you weep. Every single person interviewed talks of their love for films while sitting surrounded by squalor. A writer says, “I have to go to Bombay, do something. 300 kms. For 15 years, I’ve been heading towards Bombay. But Bombay isn’t any closer.” A beautiful interlude of sudden philosophy amidst a huddle around a bonfire provides pause for such introspection.
Malegaon’s love for films is an aberration when the town is nothing but a reflection India’s own social mess. Women in purdah, a literal religious divide in the form of a river, poverty, a lack of infrastructure for industry, the list is endless. At a runtime of 65 minutes, SoM is much too short. Would it have been better had Khan delved more deep into these aspects instead of merely touching upon them incidentally in her focused ‘making of’ story? Possibly.
And returning to irony, as if mighty Christopher Reeve dying a quadriplegic wasn’t enough, the death of Shaikh Shafique – the Superman of Malegaon who fights the tobacco mafia in the film – due to throat cancer on the day he saw himself on a big screen reminds us that we are, after all, human.