The Late Films Blogathon – Supermen Of Malegaon
If there’s any film (well, documentary to be technical) that has stayed on my mind years after I first watched it, it has been Supermen of Malegaon. Faiza Ahmad Khan’s 2012 documentary follows a ‘Maliwood’ film crew as they embark on the journey of making their Superman parody, Malegaon ka Superman (“Superman of Malegaon”). I write this in response to David Cairns’ Late Film Blogathon call for ‘last films’, as a tribute to actor Shafique Shaikh’s first and only role as Superman.
Malegaon ka Superman exemplifies regional cinema – a film adaptation of a global franchise character that is worlds away from both Hollywood and Bollywood cinemas. In Malegaon’s local film industry ‘Maliwood’, Superman and Sholay achieve a strange equivalence as source materials to be transformed into films for local Malegaon audiences. Here Charlie Chaplin is screened alongside Sunny Deol and Arnold Schwarzenegger, in cinemas and impromptu screening venues and ‘video parlours’. Genres, national cinemas, old films and new, all exist in the common continuum of Malegaon’s massive film-fanatic culture.
When he is in character, the film’s lead Shafique Shaikh himself embodies the film’s uniquely transnational identity – Superman’s iconic curl superimposed on his 70s Amitabh Bachchan ‘angry young man’ hair, a style that is in heavy demand with fillum crazy patrons in Malegaon’s salons. Malegaon Superman’s costume, made by a local tailor, has an ‘M’ emblazoned on the chest and comes with a pair of bright red basketball shorts. When filming, director Shaikh Nasir wants the white drawstring of the shorts to be visible for comic effect. Later, the shorts will be snipped in the back to get Shaikh’s Superman onto a pole to create some of the film’s DIY green screen special effects – a rip in the costume is a small price to pay to make Superman fly for the first time in a Malegaon film.
If leaked images of Nicholas Cage’s costume trials as Superman for the aborted Tim Burton adaptation Superman Lives were met with shock and disapproval by Superman fans, Malegaon’s Superman looks like an even unlikelier superhero. He is an asthmatic, skinny, non-swimmer local hero who is afraid of flying. As the scripwriters explain, he will begrudgingly fly to the top of phone towers because Malegaon has terrible cellphone reception. At other times, Malegaon’s air is too polluted from industrial smoke. Beneath the parody is scathing commentary on the town’s struggles with poverty and religious tension.
This is a local economy driven by textile mills which are the biggest employers. The documentary opens with the rattling hum of the mills, relentlessly gobbling up manual labour which residents describe as soul-destroying. However, the mills are also silenced several times a day from electricity cuts, that curtail the daily wages that majority of the film’s cast and crew members depend on. In Malegaon, cinema is not just entertainment but escapism from the oppressive monotony of an industrial economy that perpetuates choicelessness. Shaikh himself has taken days off from working at the mill to play Superman. Malegaon’s depressed industrialised economy also serves as the blueprint for the film’s own version of dystopia. There are no demented supervillains and gods of war to be here; only the many insidious shapes that poverty and social instability take. Malegaon’s version of Lex Luthor is played by one of the film’s writers as a Big Tobacco kingpin who wants to get the town addicted to chewing tobacco and revel in watching residents “spit everywhere and turn everything into filth”.
The town isn’t just struggling against debilitating poverty but also divisions that run deeper. Malegaon has been the site of religious tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities for decades, which were exacerbated after terror attacks orchestrated by Hindu fundamentalists ripped through the city in 2008. The documentary captures nights when the streets are empty except for prowling police vans that make sure that residents are following curfew orders. An unspoken boundary keeps the Muslim and Hindu sections of the town apart, with an understanding that people will stick to their part of the town. In a musical sequence, Superman and the female lead stand in a sunflower field and perform to an autotuned original song that goes, “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Issai, sabke mann ka pyaara” (Be it a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, everyone loves Superman). In this fractured elseworld, Malegaon’s Superman – a hero played by a Muslim man, with the power to fly and transcend physical borders – signifies hope for the town.
The documentary also delves into the gender inequality that lies at the heart of Malegaon’s economic and social hurdles. Director Shaikh Nasir struggles to find an actress to play his romantic interest. Male members of his own cast explain on camera, to the female documentary maker, how a woman’s place is in the house. A local actress who is finally recruited from a nearby town talks about overcoming this stigma against pervasive conservative attitudes in Maliwood. For the film’s climax where they have to fly together, Superman and his girlfriend are propped up in the front of the green screen (fabric purchased from a local store which is dangled from a truck). An elderly town resident observing this leaves in disgust, proclaiming this as an insult to God. While Malegaon’s Superman will fly, for now Lois Lane will have to fight just to get out of the house.
While his alter ego defeats big tobacco in the film, Shafique Shaikh sadly succumbed to cancer in 2012 caused by chewing tobacco. It was an ironic testimony to the many ways in which film and real life inhabit the same world in Malegoan. It is not just Shaikh’s final and only role that makes Malegaon Ka Superman a late film. Despite the acclaim and attention that the documentary brought to Maliwood, the industry has not been able to keep up with piracy and streaming. Shaikh Nasir, who invested his own money to make Superman and Malegaon’s parody of Sholay (Malegaon Ke Sholay was made on a 50,000 INR budget which works out to about $800), has said that his cinephilia is no longer enough to sustain the industry and now runs his own restaurant.
Nevertheless, Malegaon’s Superman shows how local remakes can be joyously irreverent and innovative with material in ways that mainstream Hollywood or Bollywood could ever afford to be, and champion issues that speak to local audiences. The film also deserves to be examined outside of its transnational and regional identities, as a superhero adaptation that completely reworks the Superman mythology to translate the character for its audiences. While Maliwood and Hollywood shall never meet, Malegaon Ka Superhero is now part of the global ‘canon’ of Superman, creating an elseworld where the character just happens to be a skinny Muslim man who’d rather paddle across the river in a tire and reprimand teenagers who chew tobacco.
Shafique Shaikh’s career might have been short lived, but what a role to go out on.