Romance in the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh, the country buffoon taking down a bunch of plane hijackers by the sheer might of his hukka, or the quintessential bhabhi saving her husband’s family’s fall from grace in the backdrop of a city
rattled by religious riots—Mollywood has it all. Not to be confused with its namesake in Kerala (Malayalam cinema), Mollywood is a film industry thriving in the sugarcane belt of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh that offers small-budget films with a generous dehati (rural) flavour.
A far-cry from the big-budget films of Bollywood, set in exotic foreign locales and expensive sets, Mollywood films are shot in agricultural fields or village homes. On tiny budgets (upto Rs 10 lakh), these films are similar to those shot in Malegaon or Manipur, only with a rustic flavour unique to Western UP. Actors are usually paid between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 a day, and a movie is usually wrapped up in about 10-20 days. Movies are then sold to distributors based in Delhi, who release CDs into the market.
“The industry has now taken a beating, though,” says mimicry artiste Kamal Azad, who is credited with laying the foundation of the industry in the 1990s with audio company T- Series, which still funds most of the movies made in the region. Azad used to record audio comic acts for cassettes distributed by T-Series. “There is a great influx of money among farmers and just anyone and everyone is making a movie today. There is lack of professionalism and this leads to the bigger companies not being interested in financing film projects,” says Azad, speaking of an industry pegged at almost Rs 30 crore by rough estimates.
While most artistes and writers still look at Bollywood for some sort of validation of their work and existence, the tale of Mollywood is one of small-town talent, dreams and struggles. Open captures a few characters of this tale.
Originally from Bulandshahr in Western UP, Naina has acted in over 25 films. Married at the age of 17, Naina did her graduation from Meerut after her marriage. “I used to participate in college events and dabbled in theatre with my husband,” she says. With in-laws objecting to a post-graduate course in acting and the need to earn a living, Naina, who is also a social worker who trains women in vocational skills like stitching and embroidery, joined a media house and gradually moved towards doing what she loves most—acting. A regular winner at acting competitions held in UP and Haryana, Naina’s most successful movie has been Teri Meri Mughal-e-Azam, in which she plays a regular Meerut-style heroine “who has a few scenes with the hero prancing around in bright and colourful clothes”. While she hopes to make films with “more substance”, she cannot escape the trappings of playing the female lead. “I have put on weight after a surgery last year. I have to shed at least 5 kg,” she says, refusing to reveal her age.
Raju Prince, as he is popularly known, strayed into comedy by accident. “I used to work as a medical representative and decided to start a venture of my own before facing a huge financial loss,” says Raju, 41, who first acted in a film called Padosan Acchi Hai in 1996. “I started doing audio tapes for T-Series that were compilations of comic acts. Now, there is nothing else that I would want to do,” says Raju, who often plays the country buffoon in his movies. Some of his films, like Chichoron ki Baraat and Nadan Balma, are extremely popular, he claims, in Karachi and Dubai.
An ardent fan of comic veteran Mahmood, Raju hopes that Meerut movies become bigger than Bhojpuri films. “Bhojpuri movies border on vulgarity. Our films are simple family dramas,” he says.
Involved in street theatre since class 9 and having acted with the likes of Shabana Azmi and Dara Singh, cinema was the next big step for Manmohan Bhalla. He was offered a role in a telefilm directed by Dara Singh’s elder son, Pradhuman Singh, in 2002. “We filmed the script, but it was never released,” says Bhalla, 36, who has become a household name with his latest hit Tau Chala England. The hint of a receding hairline and a pot-belly, says Bhalla, don’t bother him much. “Our films are centred around characters set in the dehati (rural) milieu as most of our audience is from villages settled in cities like Meerut or Delhi. They don’t want to watch a Salman or Shah Rukh, they want to see people like themselves,” says Bhalla.
Currently in the construction business, Bhalla loves to act and write. “I cannot take up acting as a full-time career option as I have to look after my mother. Being in Meerut and acting here in Meerut, I can follow my dream and still carry on with my responsibilities,” he says.
MAHENDRA SINGH BAWRA
Writing, direction and acting—Bawra does it all. Sixty-one years old now, he made his first Mollywood movie with a handheld camera that he hired from a wedding photographer. Twenty-eight years down that path, this government school teacher from Doonger village in Western UP is now known as the ‘Dada Saheb Phalke of Mollywood’.
“I used to imitate Hindi film actors and do scenes standing on the chabutra (parapet) in my village while keeping an eye on the cattle grazing nearby. Movies are in my blood,” says Bawra. “Bombay never happened, but I am famous in Meerut,” he says. Winner of the Governor’s Prize for his contribution to arts and culture, Bawra is also president of the Meerut Film Association. He likes his movies to have a social message. His first film, Prateeksha, was about the condition of widows, and his last movie, Thakur Ke Thaat (2007), was about bonded labour. His next venture, however, is unique. “I have played 27 characters so far in my career and I am making a film combining clippings of all these roles from my movies. I am nearly done with it and the feedback from friends and colleagues has been encouraging,” he says. Bawra is also hoping to make a mark in Bollywood, but only after 2016. “I will retire from my job then and will be able to concentrate on work. I will be heading to Mumbai after all.”
Known as the first rapist of Mollywood, Pathan, 40, was extremely worried when he had to shoot a scene where he rapes a character played by actress Suman Negi, who is often known as the ‘Aishwarya’ of the Meerut film industry. “I was worried about what my family would think and went and apologised to Sumanji before filming the scene,” he says, looking back at the time he decided to join films in 2001. Known as Ranjit among his friends, after the actor who played villain in Bollywood movies of the 1970s and 1980s, Pathan knew that he would play the villain when a producer spotted him shopping for grocery in the market and called him to his office. “I used to walk with a swagger and leave the first few buttons of my shirt open,” he says. Now infamous as ‘the bad man’ of the industry, Pathan does fewer movies, because he has commitments towards his family business of manufacturing hand pumps. “I have an offer from the South, and am still thinking if I want to do it or not,” he says.
ON HOME GROUND
The films of Mollywood have a huge audience among villagers of UP and Haryana who have moved to big cities for work. T-Series, the audio company that first started funding these films, is still the industry’s biggest financier