Superman of Malegaon: It takes a village to make a superhero

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I just got back from Sala Triangulo in Lavapies, a small theatre that is one of the venues for the Imagine India Festival. I went to see Superman of Malegaon by Faiza Ahmed Khan, a documentary about a small village some hundred-something kilometers outside of Mumbai. You would think this would be a normal, textile-industry dominated town, or gaanv, but, like all small villages, there are town personalities and legends at every doorstep. While this sleepy town may be close to the heart of Bollywood, it couldn't be further away from the escapist dreams the industry produces. Malegaon reminds us of another time, a lost Gandhi-era village.

One man is determined to put Malegaon on the map. His dream: cinematographer. His weapon: a camcorder. His crew: the village. His mission: to make a Superman movie that boldly goes where none have gone before...into Malegaon. Although recognizing that he is essentially "copying" Superman, he makes sure to let the viewer realize that Superman itself has been retold time and time again, and that in essence, all movies are the same plot...the hero, the villain, the heroine sandwhich. What he says is that his goal is to make an "indianization" or more aptly put, a "malegaonization" of Superman to put it into local context. One of his team of crew labels the movie "a technical comedy parody", whatever that means.

Supermalegaon, as I will christen this unlikely superhero, is no man of steel. A skinny man of matchstick limbs, meek eyes and a great Shahrukh Khan haircut, his body mass index falls terribly short of matching up to the Superman we've come to imagine in pop culture. His anatomy alone is a large part of the comedic relief. However, there is something so beautiful in the sacrifices the actor makes to meet the village director's demands and his level of motivation. He floats on an inflatable tube in a river full of cows, he gets flung by a truck into a trench of gutter water at the side of the road (blegh!), he endures hours of lying on a plank in front of a homemade green screen...all without complaining and yes, all in a ridiculous Superman costume. He's even willing to take leave from work to do this movie.

In the end, what you start to realize as the viewer is that the crew, the actors and extras, the audience, and even the main red-cloaked protagonist himself, these are all the village. The village will be the spectator, it is the character and it is the creator of the movie...made for the people by the people in a most literal fashion. All along the way, like a bee jumping from flower to flower, the documentary grazes over different important themes being debated in India: the role of women in the house and in work, religious tolerance (Supermalegaon "loves Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, he loves them all"), and economic livelihoods of India's lower-middle income class.

However, one of the greatest feats that perhaps is the essence of movie is how innovation and motivation coincide at the crossroads of Malegaon. Krypton is substituted for a grazing area in the wilderness, an infloatable tube becomes a space capsule, a cell phone out of a child-toy imitation, junkyard finds are collected to make use of for props on the set. What is more, is how the film production team is able to create a feature using what looks to be Windows 98, a small camera (that gets dropped several times) and use replicate special effects on a low budget. If anyone has seen Be Kind, Rewind by Michel Gondry you will know what "sweded" means. Thats the closest thing that I can think of to describe this ingenuity.

There were three moving points in the movie for me. At one part in the film, light is shed (no pun intended) on the several electricity cuts that the villagers must face on a regular basis, affecting their livelihoods as these spells basically shut down businesses. During this time, a poem by one of the villagers is read. I wish I could get a copy of these words because they were truly moving, the voice of the village. During the recitation of this poetry, imagery was shown of a fire in the absence of electric light, and you could almost imagine the words flickering out with the cinders upon being said.

Another poignant moment came at the beginning when the film director of the movie (not to be confused with the documentary), took out all the old posters he had collected during his time as a cinema house owner. An odd mix, from Rambo, to Sholay to Charlie Chaplin, to Jason and the Argonauts, but beautifully hand-painted in the style that has made Bollywood posters world-famous and appreciated as its own genre of art. His whole life seemed to be defined by memories of watching these movies, and similar to how someone whould show us a photo album, these seemed to be his life moments best captured.

Who stole the show for me? None other than the villager that plays Lex Luther...definately the highlight of the movie. The way the documentary filmmaker captured the actress who plays the heroine in the movie, dressed in a Barbie pink salwar kameez and relishing in her role as " the movie actress diva" was also unintentionally hilarious. If the movie sirens are like this from a nearby neighboring village, one can only imagine how they must be off-set in Bollywoodland. Also, not to be missed is the closing credit music remix sequence, a hit that had me thumping my toe. Makes me want to see the final movie result, although at the end of the documentary, clips of the actual film are shown. One of my favorite movies from now on for sure. Below you can find the brief trailer and a program from Al Jazeera about the film that shows one of my favorite shooting moments, the green screen!

1 Response on "Superman of Malegaon: It takes a village to make a superhero"

  1. sarah says:

    We have seen this super movie documentary in Kuwait! Great story!
    all the best in your new location, keep on writing, it is always a pleasure to read your posts