Infamy is more profound than fame. Often, small and quaint towns whose existence everyone was oblivious of, spring into infamy after being the host of something disastrous. What Chouri Choura is to arson, Kargil is to the 1999 Indo-Pak War, Godhra is to the 2002 riots and Bhuj is to the devastating 2001 earthquake, Malegaon is to the controversial 2008 dual bombings. 7 people were killed in Malegaon, fuelling the tension between the local Hindus and the sizeable population of Muslims.
However, in the same year, a group of filmmakers traversed the length and breadth of Malegaon, documenting how a bunch of enthusiastic locals displayed their love for movies. The effort resulted in a supremely hilarious and memorable documentary titled Supermen of Malegaon, directed by Faiza Ahmed Khan, thus cancelling out the town’s notoriety with doses of unbridled cinema fervour.
The documentary offers behind-the-scenes access to the making of the VFX-driven, pulpy and fictional drama Malegaon ka Superman. Despite being a documentary, the film transcends the formal boundaries of the traditional documentary film. The film is shot and edited in a way which makes the audience feel enmeshed amidst the characters, as if being a first-hand witness to the frenzy. The camera is not fixated upon any specific subject at a given time, and veers and shifts with zero attention to delicate framing. Intricate framing and blocking creates a sense of distance between the subject and the spectator, which is the conventional and ubiquitous cinematic distance. But, in this film, the director employs methods like deep focus, unsteady camera and improvisation in order to make way for crudely shot video diary aesthetics.
Pioneer of the documentary mode of filmmaking Robert Flaherty, stayed for prolonged periods in the spaces he documented, and got to know the inhabitants of the space from inside out. The makers of Supermen of Malegaon had to do the same. Getting to know the spatial characteristics and dynamics is a research which cannot be done by reading or passive watching. There needs to be a great deal of activated observation and exploration to maximise the potential of the film to evocatively capture the space. Malegaon is a breeding ground of dreams, but also of drawbacks, of passion, but also of poverty. It is this dichotomy through which the makers have made a character out of Malegaon.
The film is woven meticulously with interviews and people talking. The reason why the words of these speakers become far more interesting than any other talking head, is because these characters are omnipresent in the film. From the very beginning, we are introduced to these characters, be it the director Nasir Sheikh or the protagonist Shafique Sheikh, and they stay with us throughout the film. We feel ourselves in their shoes, understand their problems and pain and empathize with them. So, when we listen to them expressing their dilemmas or discussing their fate haplessly in front of the camera, we can not only relate to them but also end up rooting for them. Therefore, the interviews are of utmost emotional significance in this film. Without knowing and comprehending the hardships faced by the inhabitants, their process of making the film in consideration could have resulted in just another failed attempt at filmmaking by amateurs.
Shweta Venkat, the editor of the film, must have had to burn the midnight oil for days on end. Editing the film must have been a Herculean feat – arranging the inordinate amount of rushes, cutting and fine-tuning them to the optimum level, so as to maintain the video journal aesthetic as well as the prudent structuring of a heartfelt story which makes the film much more than the sum of its episodes. Venkat was also the editor of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur.
Supermen of Malegaon is a film where the senses of the audience to observe and note intricacies are stimulated. The camera is nothing but the eye of the audience, and it offers an unadulterated access to everything that the characters are exposed to. It follows an observational mode of documentary filmmaking, which has its roots in the 1920s but gained momentum in the 1950s and 60s with movements like Direct Cinema and Cinema Verite. The presence of the filmmaker is akin to a ‘fly on the wall’ and she seemingly does not intervene into the scheme of events. But, it is a conscious and political choice. To make it look as if there is zero intervention by the filmmaker, the possibility of staging certain portions cannot be ruled out. Especially when there are close-ups and cut-ins of the subject, we are driven to the thought of the film either having staged actions or having used multiple cameras, of which the former seems more likely, given the crew’s shoestring budget. However, given that the film also contains interviews, it also veers toward the participatory mode, and the heartfelt narration of the plight of the locals gives the film both an expository as well as a poetic outlook.
Documentary itself is a genre which broke away from the tropes of fiction film, and made way for recording creative representations of actualities. Upholding hitherto unseen images, charting into hitherto forbidden spaces and capturing portraits of persons of interest, became the ulterior aim of the documentary. Supermen of Malegaon, about the local movie industry of Malegaon (let’s say Malewood), does cinematic justice to the purposes of documentation. The stories of people like Nasir and Shafique, which would have got lost in the dreary jungle of high-budget films, got to be preserved through this unique effort. At the end, there is a smile on everyone’s face.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.