As an outsider, I am aware of India's broad love of the movies. I have read about the crowds that gathered on the footpath in front of Amitabh Bachchan's home in hopes of a glimpse of the superstar as he convalesced after an injury. I have read about entire villages assembling at village center for the weekly movie, projected on an improvised screen. The opening scenes of Faiza Ahmad Khan's documentary Supermen of Malegaon opens with another iconic scene of India's passion for movies, one that is likely played out week after week in hundreds of industrial towns across the nation. Each friday evening in the Maharashtra town of Malegaon, the power-looms clatter and clack to a halt, and scores of young men clamber over one another to pile into the town's cinema hall. And one man, Sheikh Nasir, pursues his dream of entertaining his hardworking neighbors by creating his own adaptations of beloved films.
Nasir has already tackled Malegaon ke Sholay and Malegaon ka Shaan. Faiza Ahmad Khan's cameras follow Nasir and his cast and crew as they take on Malegaon ka Superman. Nasir rounds up resources, designs special effects, and shoots his movie with a tiny handheld camcorder in the crowded galiyan of Malegaon. There is a certain naivete to Nasir, but a great deal of intelligence too. One has the sense that the naivete is studied, a willful application of idealism that allows him to see his projects through, undaunted. Nasir says that once he believed an entire movie from script to direction to editing was the work of one mind, not a vast team; yet he has an astute instinct for teamwork and a remarkable adaptability in the face of obstactles. If the story is Superman, Nasir observes, the audience expects to see him fly; but the professional equipment he would need to produce such effects proves out of his budget; he remarks that he could make three or four entire films for the cost of the software alone. Undeterred, Nasir arranges his own makeshift green-screen rig and digital processing to complete the effects. To raise funds, Nasir cuts a product-placement deal with a local milk business; in exchange for about Rs. 10,000, Nasir shoots a scene in their storefront and works mentions of milk into the script.
As relentlessly optimistic is Nasir is, his writer, Farogh, has the soul of a tortured artist. Nasir seems content to thrill the people of Malegaon, but Farogh's ambitions lie 300 km away, in Bombay. On the first day of the shoot, Nasir finds Farogh languishing in bed; it is unclear whether he is simply sleepy, sleeping one off, or profoundly depressed. It is agony to make films, Farogh tells the camera. You can only execute a fraction of the ideas you have in your head; the rest, the unexpressed and unrealized, you live with every day.
Supermen of Malegaon shows the bustle, the dust, the poverty of this depressed industrial town. There are hints of communal tension, as well; we are told that Muslims and Hindus live in different parts of town and do not mix much. Khan also suggests, without explicit comment, at the economic strata that coexist in Malegaon. Nasir is not a rich man by any stretch, but he is strong and healthy, and owns a computer. The contrast with the hero of his movie is stark; a stick-thin loom-worker who is not permitted time off work to shoot, Shafique cannot even fill out his custom-sewn Superman costume. A title card at the documentary's opening remembers Shafique, who died of cancer at just 28, before the documentary's general release. It is a poignant bookend to the story.
Supermen of Malegaon is a touching tale of ordinary folks finding a way to bring their dreams to life. But it is also a commentary on some of the harsh facts of day-to-day existence for India's working urban poor. India loves her movies, the documentary says, but they are also a necessary escape. This is not a novel view; it's rather a stereotyped and oft-repeated one, but like most stereotypes there is a core of truth to it. It is not lost on Nasir himself, which is what makes him - and by extension the story of his project - such a fascinating watch.
(Supermen of Malegaon is available in full, with English subtitles, on YouTube. It's scarcely an hour long, and well worth the time. A subtitled six-minute collection of clips from Nasir's film, Malegaon ka Superman, is also available.)