Fun factory

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2009, 12:00am

Looms clatter back and forth, spewing swathes of cloth in a dingy Indian factory. The grinding of the machines stops and monotonous routine breaks for only two reasons - the interminable electricity cuts that plague the country and Friday movie releases. Friday nights are when workers race out, climbing fences and scrambling over each other to claim a seat when local cinemas open.

Such scenes summarise daily life in Malegaon, a dusty little textile town in the western coastal state of Maharashtra, about 300km from the bright lights of Mumbai. When the workers are hunched over power looms for 12 to 14 hours a day - electricity supply permitting - the cinemas offer an escape from their humdrum reality into fantastical worlds.

Malegaon would be no different from hundreds of other towns in movie-crazy India but for one thing: it has a cottage industry specialising in spoofs of Bollywood blockbusters.

Clothes shop owner Shaikh Nasir started it all 10 years ago when he filmed a spoof of Sholay, a hit 1975 'curry western' about a couple of mercenaries attempting to capture a bandit. Shot on a Handycam, with local lookalikes playing the lead roles, the wacky Malegaon Ka Sholay was a surprise hit in the town and doubled Nasir's investment of 50,000 rupees (HK$7,990 today).

'I had always been interested in films and thought maybe I could make one too,' says Nasir. 'I used to run a video parlour and often edited films [VCR to VCR] that I was screening, so I had some experience. I started off shooting smaller films and wedding videos. Then I thought I would remake Sholay, but decided to make it funny, because people love comedy.'

Nasir's success spurred a spate of spoofs as other movie buffs in town experimented with their own takes on Bollywood epics such as Lagaan, Karan Arjun, Rangeela and Mughal-e-Azam.

Malegaon's quirky films attracted some media attention a few years ago but they were quickly overshadowed by news about frequent sectarian clashes and bomb blasts in the town, most recently in September last year.

But ordinary Malegaon's extraordinary story has since been captured in a documentary, Supermen of Malegaon, by Mumbai-based filmmaker Faiza Ahmad Khan. It has been doing the festival circuit, winning awards at the Karachi Film Festival and the Asiatica Film Mediale in Rome.

Khan, 27, worked in advertising production, and in 2006 was assisting on Anwar, a feature film by Manish Jha, when she was reminded of Malegaon's spoof makers.

She was drawn to their story immediately. 'I thought it had all the elements of a really interesting film,' the filmmaker says. 'It's a heartwarming story and I thought it would be very funny.'

Khan's documentary follows Nasir and his team as they embark on their most ambitious project yet, Malegaon ka Superman. Having taken on Bollywood, Nasir quips, he's 'now ready to take on Hollywood'.

Although he grew up hours from Mumbai, Nasir gets his influence more from Charlie Chaplin, and much of what he has learned about lighting, editing and special effects comes from watching countless Western movies.

'I didn't know anything at first. I later found out that what I was doing was editing, that there are specialists who handle different parts of a movie,' says Nasir, who has since learned that he can make his Superman fly using computer software, shooting first against a green screen and then superimposing the background.

Khan's unobtrusive lens follows the crew around - shopping for material for his hero's costume (with an M logo instead of an S), working on the script and localising the story (because of the pollution, Malegaon's superhero is asthmatic), editing, dubbing, the works.

Working on a minuscule budget requires a lot of ingenious improvisation; for instance, using a bullock cart for crane shots and a bicycle and motorbike instead of a dolly. It's a labour of love by passionate amateurs. Akram Khan, who runs a photography studio, multi-tasks as editor, music director and the film's villain. Local weavers, teachers and carpenters were recruited as actors and set technicians. Superman, for instance, is played by Sheikh Shafique, a scrawny power loom worker, who was so thrilled to be cast as the lead that he 'didn't sleep the whole night'.

True to the Malegaon spirit, their Superman is a caricature. He wears flip-flops and shorts with dangling drawstrings; his father sits him on a truck tyre and sends him rolling off 'to save Maleagon'. When the superhero tries to rescue drowning children, it's he who needs saving instead, and when he tries to stop a careening school bus, he slips into the gutter.

Our hero does, however, talk about the need to give children anti-polio drops, vows to end the scourge of tobacco chewing, beats up the bad guy and saves his lady love.

More than a portrait of the spoof makers, Khan's documentary sets their productions firmly in the context of an impoverished population riven by communal tensions - the river that runs through Malegaon also divides its Hindu and Muslim quarters.

Conservative customs still hold sway, so Malegaon's women don't work on the spoofs. Instead, female characters are usually played by women from other towns.

'The problem is our thinking is backward because we don't have proper education. And we don't have proper education because of poverty,' says scriptwriter Farogh Jafri. 'It's a vicious cycle.'

Against grinding poverty where workers might take home just 400 rupees a week, Bollywood productions and the hilarious homages are a welcome escape.

Yet Khan's documentary invokes appreciation and admiration rather than pity for her subjects. When she struggled with her own film, Khan often drew on the positive energy of the spoof makers.

'There were days when nothing would happen and I had no idea what to expect. Then I saw the spirit in which they made their films - not like it was something that had to be done but they were mostly enjoying the process,' says Khan.

'As an outsider, you might look at a town like Malegaon and think it is a terrible existence, but the people are happy.'

Her producer, Siddharth Thakur, says: 'It was amazing how the whole town opened up to us. Their passion for what they do was inspirational. With very few resources, they go out there and try to live their dreams.'

For all the rave reviews abroad, the documentary has yet to be screened in India, where it is likely to have the greatest impact on Khan and Nasir's lives. But Nasir has no illusions about gaining a launchpad to Bollywood.

'It's a hobby for me. I do it for my satisfaction. But there's no future in it,' he says. 'We are small fry and we'd lose ourselves in Mumbai. I don't want to struggle there.'

But he does have some ambitions. 'I have a script that I want to read to [Bollywood star] Aamir Khan. I know that if I spend just five minutes with him, he will agree to do it,' he says.

'I never thought I would get this far. But you should always dream and something might happen.'