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Salim Baba races towards Oscar glory

Mohammed Salim's life in the mean streets of Kolkata is the subject of intense scrutiny as the Academy Awards draw close.

entertainment Updated: Jan 28, 2008 14:34 IST

He sits with his hand-cranked 1897 projector in a one-room shack in a grimy cluster, hearing the word Oscar for the first time. But in far away Hollywood, Mohammed Salim's life in the mean streets of Kolkata is the subject of intense scrutiny as the Academy Awards draw close.

Salim Baba, a documentary by American filmmaker Tim Sternberg on Salim's life as a movieman, is in the last four of the Academy Awards Documentary Short category this year.

"Where is this place called Oscar? Will a win fetch me some money so that I can marry off my daughter?" asked Salim, who every evening ventures out of his hovel with the century-old contraption atop a cart to peddle movie magic. He has been entertaining people this way for nearly 42 long years - for just one rupee.

The 52-year-old man and a father of six has made a living screening discarded film scraps for children in neighbourhoods surrounding his home in north Kolkata's Marquis Square using a hand-cranked Japan-made projector that he inherited from his father.

Resisting all the lucrative offers to part with his projector, Salim runs his show every evening with his sons, regaling children with clips from all kind of films.

"I purchase the footage - all film trailers - from the film scrap markets in Chandni Chowk, Canning Street and Murgihata," he said.

In early 2006, independent American filmmaker Sternberg and cameraman Francisco Bello approached him for the film, which is up for an award along with Freeheld, La Corona and Sari's Mother.

When the significance of the Oscar was explained, Salim's face lit up: "You say it is like Filmfare Award in India? Then I feel proud and happy."

The next moment, he asked: "Will I get anything so that I can marry off my second daughter?"

Kolkata filmmaker Raja Dey, who co-produced Salim Baba, told IANS: "I feel proud to be part of the film... I think there should be some effort to create a fund for him. The makers must do something if the film wins."

Dey said Salim had got an offer from the makers of Salim Baba for a full-length film.

Salim said: "They had sent me some papers to sign. But after consulting a lawyer I did not sign it. I felt that it would forfeit my right to talk to other media or allow others to shoot. A filmmaker from London also has expressed his desire to shoot my life. I can only take a decision once I know the details."

In December 2006, Al Jazeera English also shot with Salim for a day for their slot on movies.

But while Salim's life in the fetid Kolkata lanes is the toast of red carpet glory, the man's life perhaps would remain unchanged.

What keeps Salim going is the fact that in this crowded Indian metropolis of brand new cineplexes, umpteen movie theatres, DVD parlours and 24-hour access to cable TV channels, people still gather round his anachronistic movie cart for a trip down an era of reel romanticism.

As Salim wheels a rectangular cart with the 106-year-old Japanese projector, the young and old crowd around. Disregarding the blurred images, they are only too happy to shell out one rupee for a five-minute Bollywood trailer packed with song, dance and action.

"I am supporting my family of wife and six children with this. From 25 paise per viewer in the late 1970s to one rupee now, the show is going on and people are lapping it up every day," Salim boasted.

But there is uncertainty. He doesn't know how long he can continue.

"I don't keep well these days. I am worried about the marriage of my second daughter."

Maybe, the red carpet will be his walkway out of his troubles.