Supermen of Malegaon (Documentary)

Director: Faiza Ahmed Khan
Rating: ****
Suparna Sharma
July 7, 2021

Supermen of Malegaon tells the poignant and goofy story of not just Malegaon but many tier-zero towns in India — of the place and its politics, and of its people and their obsessions — like only a very keenly observant documentary with an eye for the comic can.

A river runs through Malegaon, splitting it into two: the Hindu side and the Muslim side. Communal tension keeps people from crossing over. That’s how most of us know Malegaon, because of the 2006 and 2008 bomb blasts, and the Col. Purohit post-script.
Though just 296 km from Mumbai, Malegaon, a textile town which has more than 129 slums, could well be in another Milky Way if it were not for the umbilical cord that connects it to Bollywood. But it wasn’t always so. The Gandhi bust that sits fenced in the middle of the town’s main street is not the ubiquitous show-piece it usually is. Here it is a memento. Malegaon’s residents played a significant role in the freedom struggle, rejected Muslim League’s two-nation theory and opposed Partition.
But Malegaon has few identities today that lend the town and its people some distinction and a sliver of dignity. Despite the 8-10 hour daily power cuts, residents speak proudly of their power looms, and then quickly change the subject to Malegaon’s obsession with cinema.
Film stars are everywhere: On the walls, flying on kites, their bare-chested cut-outs posing in photo studios and barber shops where each one demands a different rate: A Sanjay Dutt haircut for Rs 151, while a Shahrukh cut costs Rs 101.
Malegaon’s deep connection with cinema goes beyond watching Bollywood, B-grade Hollywood and Jackie Chan films. Their obsession has spawned many a talent and the town’s own cottage industry, Mollywood, which is dominated by Muslims.
Shot in 2008, but released last week in just five Indian, director Faiza Ahmed Khan and cinematographer Gargey Trivedi and Siddharth Thakur’s Supermen of Malegaon tells the story of this city through the making of a feature film, Malegaon ka Superman, by Sheikh Nasir.
Nasir, who owns a readymade garments shop, had earlier made Malegaon ke Sholay for Rs 50,000. Shot on a hand-held camera, the film ran for over two months and is still fondly remembered because Gabbar, his aadmi and Jai-Veeru are all from Malegaon.
But with Malegaon ka Superman, Nasir is upping the game. He wants his Superman to fly, so he is using chroma (a technology where a special green-screen is used during filming, which is later replaced by images to create special effects).
We accompany Nasir to Mumbai to buy make-up and equipment, and we sit in his house listening to him talk about his inspiration, Charlie Chaplin, and discourage his brother from joining “the film line”. Though Faiza Ahmed Khan is circumspect in probing too much, we do hear why no woman even strays into the frame of her documentary, forget act in Nasir’s films.
We also meet Nasir’s crew — a team of four scriptwriters, including Farogh Jafri who looks and sounds like a scriptwriter straight out of Bollywood, complete with angst and the air of a defeated genius. Together they try to make Malegaon ka Superman funny, contemporary and relevant by making their hero fly close to a mobile tower for better reception, and by making pollution and filth his kryptonite. Their Superman is asthmatic and gets dizzy when he tries to fly around in circles.
Shaikh Shafique is their man for this role. A short, wiry boy with sunken cheeks and an adorable smile, he stays up all night before the shoot, worrying how he is going to fly, and then worries again when, in the middle of the film’s shooting, his wedding is organised, which includes a haldi ceremony, i.e. a very yellow Superman singing a love duet with an actress from a neighbouring town.
Akram Khan, who plays the film’s spooky villain who loves gandagi, has a really funny dialogue about how he wishes to see “Hindustan ka har bachcha, budha aur jawan” spitting. Akram is also the film’s editor, singer, sound-mixer and more.

GRIM AND FUNNY, ironic and satirical, Supermen of Malegaon captures not just Malegaon’s heady commitment to watching films, but also the absurdity of their attempts to make their own films. While Nasir’s belief in what he doing is almost evangelic, Faiza Ahmed Khan’s camera patiently watches Superman, floating in a tyre tube on a river, go adrift and then return to the shore paddling with his rubber chappals. Shaikh Shafique can’t swim.
Though we quickly start caring for all these people, especially Shafique who looks frail, most remain a pleasant curiosity.
You have to watch this film to believe the ingenuity and persistence of Nasir and his cast and crew in putting together a film that will run only in Malegaon and only for, perhaps, two months. But it’s worth it, because every Friday, when the power looms go silent, Malegaon comes to life, to catch a fragment of a dream.
Supermen of Malegaon is dedicated to Shaikh Shafique (1979-2011). Kryptonite got to him.