Superman died in Malegaon

Nasir Sheikh is one of India’s most passionate filmmakers. You may not have heard of him. Chances are, you’ve heard about some of his films. He’s made two. As we speak, he’s just finished his third, the most ambitious project yet. They’re certainly the talk of the small town he comes from.

Like most directors in the world, Nasir learnt filmmaking at the films. He did his “rehearsals” with Hollywood, studying “master directing, master lighting….” Hindi movies, he feels have “weak direction”. James Cameron’s The Abyss, it appears, is one of his favourites. It played for a month in the video theatre he once owned. He now runs a clothes’ showroom in the same space, which is evidently not his calling.

Shafique Sheikh, Malegaon’s 28-year-old Superman died of mouth cancer.

Years before, Nasir had picked up a moving camera, taken up cinematography, to shoot local weddings. He does remakes of popular blockbusters now. They are fresh works still. Only the premise is borrowed. For this, he even names the original movie in the title. Nasir is evidently untouched by credit-stealing ways of Bollywood, though he only lives about 300 kilometres from Mumbai.

It’s a place called Malegaon in northwest Maharashtra, which is known for many things, one of them, a local says, is its unlimited passion for movies. Where a Shah Rukh haircut sells for Rs 101, and a Sanjay Dutt one for much more (Dutt’s hair needs better styling at the back).

A river divides this town between Hindus and Muslims. Both live on either side but rarely mingle. Segregation is complete. This is no different from the sub-continent itself, where two upset neighbours, separated in recent history over religion, are still united in their love for Bollywood movies. Malegaon is predominantly a Muslim.

Faiza Ahmed Khan’s hilarious and tender documentary, warmly called the Supermen of Malegaon, takes you into the heart of this mofussil town in Nashik district. Faiza’s is clearly the most amusing film you’re ever likely to watch on the making of another movie. In the docu, Nasir says he’s already taken on Bollywood, having directed both Malegaon Ka Sholay and Shaan. This time his ‘takkar’(battle) is with Hollywood. Computers can make this possible. He will shoot the film on “chroma”, where actors perform before a green sheet curtain, and background images are generated digitally. It would cost him Rs 2 lakh at a Mumbai studio. With Rs 2 lakh, he could make four movies, he says. He’d rather do it on his own. Nasir needs to balance his means with quality. This is quite the reverse of Bollywood, where movie budgets seem inversely proportional to content.

Nasir is going to make his hero fly. He is making Malegaon Ka Superman! The first four parts of the American franchise, he says, were commercial successes, but the fifth Superman failed because they’d merely remade the first one. This was unnecessary. There’s so much in the concept to take forward, he says.

Nasir’s parody takes Superman to Malegaon; to dance in the fields; save his sweetheart from slimy goons; soar in the sky to catch better signals, when his cellphone’s phone network gets weak. Superman, in a rich baritone, says he wants everyone to “thooko” (spit) everywhere, on the streets, in the restaurants… Because, he says, “I louv filth!”

It’s quite a moment in Faiza’s documentary when Nasir finally reveals his Christopher Reeves: a worryingly gaunt, short, dark young man, who appears in Superman’s sky-blue body suit with M for a new emblem, and the long nada (draw-strings) of his boxer-shorts deliberately left out for public view. The star of the film had taken leave to play the main role. He works 12-hour shifts in a power-loom, like most of Malegaon, which ironically gets power for only few hours in a day.

Skinny Superman’s underpants are split from the bottom. Through that slit, he’s made to slide into a log of wood that juts out of a horse cart. A few people from the film crew hold and flutter his red cape from behind. The cape flies in the air. The cart moves forward, taking the lead actor along. In the scene, Superman tears into an auto-rickshaw and drags a villain out. You want to clap.

Most other times, the super-hero is hung on to a horizontal pole, pretending to fly. In one scene, director Nasir drops his camera in water. The crew leaves Superman alone in a pond, floating on an air-tube. He doesn’t sulk, just looks on clueless. The camera is fixed later; they resume the shoot eventually!

The film is ready and scheduled to release in November. Its leading star got to see it finally for the first time this Tuesday night in Malegaon, among 2,000 film-buffs, which included filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Zoya Akhtar. The actor was probably satisfied with his performance, ecstatic about his movie debut.

But it must have been a tad uncomfortable watching a movie lying in bed at its premiere show, with a catheter inserted into his nose. Right the next morning, according to news-reports, “Shafique Sheikh, Malegaon’s 28-year-old Superman, died of mouth cancer.” He’d been suffering for a year. It was an unlikely hero’s death. Literally. His passion still lives on. I intend to watch it soon.

Follow the writer on twitter@mayankw14

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