By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 18, 2008
MALEGAON, India -- Past a narrow alleyway filled with sleeping goats, water tanks and women washing clothes, Shaikh Nasir's modest home is a landmark. This is where he thinks up new ways to make the people of this grim textile town laugh.
Nasir is the father of a homegrown film industry that is famous for its parodies of blockbuster movies from Bollywood, India's Hindi film capital. For Malegaon's power-loom workers and others laboring long hours for low pay, his wild and wacky movies provide some relief from bleak lives interrupted by frequent sectarian clashes and bomb blasts. In September, a motorcycle bombing killed six people and injured more than 100 here.
"There is no other entertainment in our town. We are mad about movies. After 14 hours of backbreaking work in power looms daily, the workers want to wear wings and fly," Nasir said. "My parodies help them escape."
The film industry in Malegaon, about 175 miles northeast of India's mainstream movie city of Mumbai, is made up of half a dozen directors who pick famous movies, tweak the plots and pepper them with local images and idioms. For actors and technicians, the directors make do with moonlighting weavers, teachers, pharmacists, carpenters, plumbers and wedding-video makers.
Although it may lack the flair and flamboyance of Bollywood, the quirky world of Malegaon's movies reflects the enduring influence of the cinema on the Indian sensibility and, in particular, on the dreams and aspirations of its small towns. But the people of Malegaon take their passion for the movies a step further -- coloring their remakes with their own lives. Their irreverent caricatures also subvert the commercial dynamic of Bollywood, which is built, like Hollywood, on a star system.
"It is a place where violence and horror and danger coexist with such a wonderful sense of irony and humor," said Sridhar Raghavan, a Bollywood scriptwriter. "The films are a real labor of love by people who really care for the original films. It is not spoof by any standard -- homage would be a better word. It's not like a Mad-magazine version. I find them really inventive and creative."
Malegaon's movies are made on a dirt-cheap budget of about $1,000, while their Bollywood originals can cost nearly 2,000 times as much. Nasir shoots with a Panasonic Handycam, a crane shot is usually mounted on a bullock cart, and a bicycle is used for a trolley. Until recently, he edited using the "in-video" technique, from one VCR to another, although he has used a computer for his latest effort, a spoof of Hollywood's Superman movies.
Malegaon's film journey began in 1999 with Nasir's hilarious remake of the iconic 1975 Indian bandit movie "Sholay." Nasir called his version "Malegaon ke Sholay," or "Malegaon's Sholay," using a prefix he attaches to all his remakes. But instead of riding horses, the bandits in the remake appear on bicycles, and references to local cigarette brand wars, restaurants and factories and snippets of local lore abound. The movie was a runaway hit and brought the town its first dose of fame.
But with this year's "Malegaon ka Superman," at $2,000 the most expensive remake, the little industry may be poised for bigger things. Last month, a film on the making of the Superman satire won the jury award for best documentary feature at the Asiatica Film Mediale, Italy's annual Asian film festival.
"This is the first time I am taking on Hollywood. I hope to get overseas rights for my Superman film," Nasir said with a dimpled smile. "There are many flying scenes. When my Superman flies, Malegaon will fly, too."
There is one problem. Malegaon's Superman is no muscleman. Instead, he is wafer-thin, wears flip-flops and has cotton strings hanging from his shorts. His father makes him sit on a truck tire and pushes him into a river, ordering him, "Go save Malegaon!"
But when this caricature tries to rescue children drowning in the river, he begins to gasp for breath and has to be pulled out. He wants to prevent children from falling off the roof but gets stuck in the electric wires. He slips into the gutter when he tries to stop a school bus with his hands. He is thrown into a tub of milk to gain strength; he catches a chill instead.
But there are some things Malegaon's Superman does right. He takes babies to the hospital for anti-polio drops and sings and dances with his love interest in sunflower-filled fields.
And then, one day, he finds his calling.
"He is spat upon accidentally by someone chewing tobacco, a raging addiction in Malegaon. Then he vows to end the menace," said Akram Khan, the movie's scriptwriter and editor, who also joins the cast as a menacing tobacco merchant.
Nasir dropped out of school after 10th grade and spent his teenage years watching movies at the theater his family owned. He denies that his movies are copies, saying that he is "inspired by the original" and that he "localizes the content each time."
He made his Superman fly by having three men hold the actor horizontally over their heads or getting him to lie flat on a pushcart and a bicycle with his arms outstretched. Sheikh Shafiq, who plays Superman, is an illiterate weaver who earned about $2 a day for his role.
"It does not matter that I am thin. This is just the opposite of the original story," Shafiq, 25, said of Nasir's movie.
Malegaon's humor is not reserved for the screen; it permeates daily life here. Neighborhoods in the town sport names such as Suddenly Place and Tension Square in Hindi. A local river is called Falling, because many children have drowned in it.
On a recent evening, Muhammad Shakib, a power-loom worker, walked up to a tiny movie rental store here and asked for a copy of another popular remake.
"These movies tell the local story in the local dialect. The jokes are from this soil," he said, hiding his smile with his fingers. "We recognize the people in the movie. My wife and I say: 'There's our grocery man. There's that weaver from the neighborhood. And that's our tailor.' "