Supermen of Malegaon (Khan, 2009)

When dealing with documentaries of one place (in this case Malegaon, India) for the viewing consumption of another (in this case, America), I tend to think there are two basic categories: those films that emphasize the ways in which once we get beyond the surface differences of culture humans are all the same, and those films that emphasize the otherness of the foreign (to the viewer) culture and the people who occupy it.

Supermen of Malegaon is definitely in the former category. If I say it is a sweet film, can you trust me that I use the phrase without any hint of condescenscion? The film follows Shaikh Nasir, who had a video salon where he played movies but decided he wanted more. He bought a camera and started remaking Hollywood and Bollywood films, recasting them with local actors and settings and giving them themes appropriate to Malegaon. As the film opens, he is beginning to work on his version of Superman.

It would be easy enough to read the title of the film derisively and spend fifty-two minutes laughing at the ridiculously low tech special effects–several extras under a green sheet hold up Superman before another green sheet to simulate flying; the director mounts a bicycle that is pushed by extras to simulate a dolly shot–but it’s actually quite hard not to get roped into Khan’s relentless enthusiasm.

Once I did, strange things happened while watching the film:

  • When Nasir has to take several days off from shooting because his leading man is getting married, and he can’t quite hide his exasperation even though he knows he should be gracious, I saw Francis Ford Coppola screaming “Martin’s fine!” into the phone in Hearts of Darkness, after his lead has had a heart attack that threatens his production of Apocalypse Now.
  • When he goes to Bombay to look for equipment to make a color film and other adjustments needed for this film and is told that the cost would exceed his entire budget for four films, I hearkened back John Sayles in Naked Hollywood explaining the constraints of  being “free” from studio interference as an independent film maker.
  • When screenwriter Akram Khan speaks of the “pain” of only being able to get 20% of the vision in one’s head onto the screen, I thought again of Sayles, this time explaining about how he wanted a wide-angle shot in Eight Men Out but did have enough extras to film the seats on the location shoot to make it look like a World Series game with packed bleachers.
  • As lead actor Shafique Ansari gets dumped in the river, thrown on this back, pushed by a truck into a sewage ditch and generally beat up by the production, I thought of Christian Bale talking about how the discomfort of the batsuit almost drove him insane and about how Werner Herzog jumped into the river to film scenes in Rescue Dawn.
  • Through it all, I kept thinking of Peter Bogdonovich talking about having to get the light just right in Daisy Miller, of Peter Brook sending a cameraman with a hand-held through the dancing boys in Lord of the Flies, not looking for anything in particular but just trusting him to know it when he sees it, of Carl Theodor Dreyer on the set of Gertrud waiting for the light to be exactly right, of John Ford catching a scarf in the wind, of Marla Olmstead in My Kid Could Paint That and Jackson Pollock in Pollock “playing” with their medium and learning what it can do.

If that process of creative inquiry doesn’t always yield a masterpiece each and every time, there is something magical and mystical and, yes, universal about it. There is something, then, that is both familiar about this documentation of the creative process and comforting. The film reminds us that we are all the same both when we see the rows of loom workers taken away from their weariness for a brief instant while they smile at flickering lights and when we watch the artist use whatever is at his disposal to express himself and speak to his audience.

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Browning said, “or what’s heaven for?” There is something, in the final analysis, winning about Nasir’s refusal to make any concessions to circumstance, to do that which makes him happy and to build a life in which he is doing what he wants to do rather than lamenting that opportunity never came knocking to whisk him away. Will people be studying his film in schools decades from now? Perhaps not. I do know, however, that in the days following the documentary, I caught myself several times singing to myself, “Superman…I am Malegaon’s Superman!”

And I was smiling.

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Postscript: Supermen of Malegaon is playing mostly at film festivals at the moment. Inquiries should be directed to Caldecott Productions. (No, this isn’t an ad. Just trying to avoid that standard “Where can I see this?” e-mails.)

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