Malegaon Magic

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When director Faiza Ahmad Khan set out to capture this town’s passion for film spoofs, things just fell into place: the funding, a slew of awards, a theatre release. Almost like the way Malegaon’s films get made—miraculously

I’m not actually surprised Faiza Ahmad Khan—we had agreed to meet on the weekend before her film Supermen of Malegaon is released in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad and Kolkata.

Busy would, very understandably, be the order of her day.

I am surprised, though, when I get her SMS: ‘Sorry I didn’t text earlier but I had to go to the police station to file an FIR…’

I play it cool—‘Sure, whenever you are done.’

But it makes me think of the first time I heard of Faiza about a year ago: redevelopment was threatening homes in the sizeable Golibar slum of Mumbai, and, amid residents’ accusations of coercion and illegal tactics, including the use of forged signatures indicating their willingness to move out of the slum, Faiza and some friends had banded together to raise awareness of the issue.

The demolitions are still on, as also the slum-dwellers’ struggle against the redevelopment. Unsurprisingly, Faiza is still involved. In June, Faiza helped organise a film festival against the backdrop of the rubble that used to house people who can produce evidence, such as receipts of property tax, of the legal status of the buildings they used to live in. The unusual film festival opened with Anand Patwardhan’s Bombay Mera Shahar and included other films highlighting the working class history of Mumbai, such as Paromita Vohra’s Annapurna. Faiza does not volunteer information about the Bollywood attendees at the showings. Instead, she talks about how Golibar residents had made the film festival their own, deciding by the end of the week-long initiative to screen a film in Marathi that they had selected and downloaded from the net.

For those waiting to see what Faiza has in store for us next, here’s a big hint—it has to do with the recent wave of slum demolitions in Mumbai.

“I’m actually waiting to see how my one-and-a-half years of working in Golibar or Sion evolve. I’m trying something different with this,” she says.

“The term ‘slum redevelopment’ seems to be a good thing because people will get new houses, it will be better for Mumbai, which can now become Shanghai or some such. But what happens is that houses are demolished before the monsoons and someone’s six-month-old child dies because she didn’t have a roof over her head. That changes your perception. And how do you challenge the meta-narrative so that these other stories are part of the larger story.”

It’s not for the faint-hearted, following people who have to decide at the drop of a hat whether to go to work or stay home in order to prevent a ‘demolition drive’; it can’t be easy to sit with the woman who has to decide whether to pack up and move to an uncertain location—“What about the kids’ school? Will my family take me in?”—or whether she should stand up to the destruction.

And it can’t be easy filing an FIR because the builder’s henchmen tried to break her camera while she was documenting the destruction.

But when we meet, Faiza has a smile. No tension, it seems, even though the police haven’t accepted the FIR.

There isn’t too much glee either. Until a few months ago, it was highly unlikely that a film such as Supermen of Malegaon (it’s a documentary, which typically sets the audience’s ‘serious cinema’ alarm bells ringing) would even be shown, so I had thought celebration would be in order. But it turns out that Faiza has moved on from Supermen. You see, she made the film some four years ago, at the age of 26. What she is pleased about is that the space for other kinds of cinema is expanding in India: “Bollywood exists and I don’t think you need to infringe on Bollywood’s space.”

 Nonetheless, the story of the film is compelling. Faiza just smiles when I suggest this to her, but it seems to me that there is something unstoppable about Supermen of Malegaon.

Faiza’s story as a filmmaker began with a leap she took early in her career: “[After two years in advertising] I woke up one day and realised I didn’t want to slog so hard selling toothpaste. I went in that afternoon and quit.”

The film’s story began with a newspaper article that caught Faiza’s attention at a time when her passion for filmmaking had been dampened by her madcap experience as additional director on the 2007 film Anwar (directed by Manish Jha). “There were so many misadventures on that film. It was quite a shattering experience for the director. The way that film was made was actually a little like how they make films in Malegaon,” Faiza says.

The article, about communally-charged Malegaon, a city where people made films out of little more than passion, inspired Faiza to call up the reporter. These guys in Malegaon were making films because they loved films, she says. She got Malegaon filmmaker Sheikh Nasir’s number and took an overnight bus. In her bag, she had packed all four Superman DVDs, thinking these Hollywood flicks would offer interesting material for spoofs. Within 10 minutes of meeting Nasir—writer, director and cameraman—he was talking about this one Hollywood film he had wanted to make for several years: “Because so far no one has messed with Superman.”

In a few more minutes, with Faiza’s bag still unopened, Nasir was breaking down the script and storyline that he’d been working on.

“I didn’t ever decide that I only wanted to make documentaries,” says Faiza, “But the people of Malegaon and their story was so fascinating, it would have been criminal to fictionalise them.”

“When I was growing up, the films I watched seemed far removed from reality, seemed very unrooted,” she says. It’s how her sensibility took shape.

“I would wonder why it was the documentary’s prerogative to hold up a mirror to society. Why didn’t fiction do that as well? And then I discovered Iranian cinema, in which it was hard to differentiate fiction from documentary. And that’s the kind of space I found myself wanting to be in.”

Funding for Supermen of Malegaon appeared no less miraculously: a friend in Mumbai told her about a producer who was looking to commission films, and, after a quick flight across to Singapore and back, Faiza had the money she needed—Rs 24 lakh. And within three months—“Back then I thought it was a really long schedule”—she had a film ready to screen. Faiza sent it off to Singapore and thought that was that.

Instead, she found herself spending part of 2008 in France’s La Rochelle, a festival and market for film and TV content where the latest stories and programmes are shopped around. As a result, very few films get screenings. Somehow, the festival’s organisers found themselves with an unexpected slot. So Supermen of Malegaon got its very first public screening.

“I was really disappointed. It was six people,” Faiza laughs. She goes on to recall how one member of her tiny audience, an Italian journalist, loved the film so much he requested a copy for a film festival in Rome. And that’s how Supermen of Malegaon went on to win its first award, the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Asiatica Film Mediale in 2008.

Faiza believes films should resonate with all viewers and describes her satisfaction with the way that Supermen of Malegaon clicked with audiences in Singapore as well as Malegaon: “In Singapore, they thought it was funny that films are made like this. [They liked] the bits that are fairly universal, identifying with the underdogs. In Malegaon, they were pleased with how expansive it was.”

The film has garnered 15 awards so far, including awards for editing and sound. For Faiza, one of the most meaningful events in the film’s life was a screening that took place on the Narmada ghats. “We had 1,000 people at the screening; one projector in a field,” she says, conjuring a dramatic sight. “We also screened the film for a [large group of] community video producers. They loved it. [Director Sheikh] Nasir and [music director] Akram [Khan] had also come: they became like stars and that was their first time outside Malegaon.”

Despite all the accolades—the film has been screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a gatekeeper of contemporary art from around the world—a release in Indian theatres seemed unlikely, even after the film found another champion. For one, Faiza didn’t have the rights to the film. She still doesn’t. All she has, as of January 2012, are distribution rights, and that too, for a year. So it was providential that PVR approached her for its Directors’ Rare slot. Providential? Or just plain unstoppable?