At any time of the day in Malegaon, a restless little town of three lakh loom workers 300 km north of Mumbai, bunches of little kids hang outside their homes. Their mothers mind the lines of washing hanging outside. The men, when not at work or out of work, cram the single-screen theatres showing Coolie for the umpteenth time. A noise brings them out. A green screen is rolled down in front of a truck. Shafique Ahmed pops through it, flailing his arms. He grimaces. The sun is on his head. His too-tight Superman shorts are hurting his bum.
“It feels wonderful,” the 23 year-old actor nevertheless says of his experience while shooting for Malegaon ka Superman made by Shaikh Nasir, the director of a slew of Malegaon films — Malegaon ke Sholay, Malegaon ka Don, Mamu Main Hoon Na, Gabbarbhai MBBS. In Nasir’s latest film (shown at the 11th Osian festival in Delhi, it will be screened next at the international film festival in Goa), Shafique as Superman is the hero.
Nasir finances his movies by running a textiles showroom. ‘Villain’ Akram Khan, who also edits and does playback for Malegaon films, helms a photo studio. Shafique works in a powerloom. “Hansi bade mushkil se milti hai aajkal (It’s difficult to laugh these days),” he says. “Mumbai struggles to do comedy, we do action comedy,” says Nasir. “Superman gets outboxed by local goons, electrocuted while trying to get a kite, pecked by crows while flying and rams into an auto-rickshaw…”
Stoop to conquer
What we have here is a subversion of popular culture. The Malegaon films do Bollywood spoofs, toilet humour, Jackie Chan and Charlie Chaplin rip-offs to create a parallel reality — here, romance is an illusion, heroes are pitiable creatures who need to be saved and the police (a common sight in Malegaon since the 2006 blasts) are replaced by friendlier Home Guards.
Nasir, the man who gave Malegaon the status of an industry — Malewood, has good reason to squeeze his 5’4”-tall hero with a 24-inch waist into a blue bodysuit with white drawstrings, red chaddis and chappals. “We have no money, technology, locations, star-cast. Our Superman has to be comic. If he flies, he has to fall down.”
If Nasir is the father of Superman, first-time director Faiza Khan may well claim to be the other parent. Mumbai-based Faiza and Siddharth Thakur’s production house (with Asian Pitch, a platform for independent directors) gave Nasir Rs. 1 lakh to make his film, and also made a documentary on its making. Bollywood’s polished heroes and heroines and its multiplex-tailored storylines can alienate places like Malegaon, says Faiza.
“Malegaon might go to see Love Aaj Kal, but it is yesteryear films like Bhaabi, Avtar and Laawaris that get re-runs,” she adds. “Set-ups like Nasir’s are democratic. Here, the cinema comes from the people, it talks about their problems. The actors live among their ‘audience.’ When they see Shafique on screen, they identify with him. A powerloom worker — half-fed, frail in health, imperfect, they feel he is their brother.”
SPEAK OUR LANGUAGE
The only connect Malegaon feels with an Om Shanti Om is Hindi. But it does not speak their language. Jackie Chan films do — when they edit the language out. “Action films work for us,” explains Akram Khan, the multi-tasker and villain ‘Ding Dong Ding’ who is shown to own a tobacco company ‘Thu-Thu Gutkha,’ in Superman. “Action overcomes the language barrier.”
Akram has imagination, drive. His next film which he plans to direct and be leading man in so as to catch Bollywood’s undivided attention, is ‘Malegaon ka Romeo’ — without a Juliet. Intrigued? The film comes with the typical Malegaon twist: His Romeo will have no time for poetry. He is a flirt extracting a poor man’s revenge on a rich girl. “In life, rich girls don’t marry poor men. Why should we show otherwise?” he asks. “My Romeo makes the girl pay his bill in a hotel and drives around in her car for free — all in fun.”
In this band of dreamers, is Faroque Jafri, one of the four scriptwriters of Nasir’s film. The walls of his home, as shown in Faiza’s documentary, are yellow and peeling. Unlike Akram who is desperate to work in Bollywood, he says: “For 15 years, I have been ‘going to Mumbai’. But Mumbai has not come any closer.” Nasir plays it down: “Faroque wants to go. But he does not want to leave.” For Nasir, all his challenges are in Malegaon. In his next film, ‘Malegaon ka Spiderman’, he will have to make the local milk merchant’s chubby boy his hero. His film depends on it.