Making it big in Mollywood

The film industry in the small Indian town of Malegaon creates spoof versions of some of Bollywood's most famous films.

Faiza Ahmad Khan, the director of Supermen of Malegaon. Courtesy Faiza Ahmad Khan
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Sheikh Nasir had June 29 all figured out. He gathered more than a dozen of his friends, family and colleagues and rode a bus to Mumbai, about four hours away from his hometown of Malegaon.

Nasir travelled from the small town, a mill and textile city, to attend the commercial release of a documentary film, titled Supermen of Malegaon, which chronicles his pioneering role in Malegoan's tiny, low-budget but popular spoof-film industry known as Mollywood.

Years back, Malegaon's power loom economy took a hit because of power cuts and a lack of decent wages. By sparking a mini cinematic revolution, Nasir, 35, was the cushion that softened the blow of economic depression in the film-crazy town. Predominantly Muslim, it is divided by a river - with the Hindus on one side and Muslims on the other.

It all began 13 years ago when Nasir picked up a small VHS camcorder. A self-confessed movie junkie, he owned a video parlour that screened popular Hindi movies, as well as Jackie Chan, Charlie Chaplin and James Bond titles for the townsfolk. He also made posters, by hand, of all the films that he put up for screening - posters of city life, of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other beloved actors.

Not surprisingly, his regular, excessive diet of movies seeded an ambition in him to become a filmmaker. So Nasir started to take Bollywood super hits and gave them his own spoof storyline and wacky dialogue. He would get his neighbours to act in them and edited the footage in his friend's studio.

His first movie, titled Malegaon Ke Sholay and released in 2002, was a hilarious take on the 1975 cult action-adventure Sholay. Nasir shot the film on his camcorder with a budget of 50,000 Indian rupees (Dh3,300). He quips he made a couple of lakhs off a movie that he produced on a lark.

Nasir's Mollywood is now several films old: Malegaon Ke Karan Arjun, Malegaon Ka Ghajini, Malegaon Ka Rangeela, Malegaon Ka Don - and the list goes on. In 2009, he and his crew decided to go off-shore, to Hollywood, and make Malegaon Ka Superman. It is the making of this movie that the director Faiza Ahmad Khan chose to document and celebrate in Supermen of Malegaon.

In 2008, Khan was doing what most aspiring filmmakers did in Bollywood - assisting other directors and counting down to her big break. It was then that she heard of this town with its own Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.

"They were cleverly using these popular film icons for local problems and issues disguised in popular film satires," says Khan, 30. "These films dealt with local problems of gutkha (a chewable mixture of crushed betel nuts and tobacco) and alcohol, with the social messages piggy-backing on them." She adds that because the town is 80 per cent Muslim, the industry's films are popular on the Muslim side but the Hindus don't even know it exists.

Khan and her small crew followed Nasir for four months as he made Malegaon Ka Superman. The superhero character in Nasir's movie comes to Malegaon to rectify local addiction issues in the town, while the villain is a proprietor of a gutkha factory who wants to get everyone addicted. Apart from addiction, Nasir's films have dealt with a number of topical problems such as the stigma attached to leprosy, rocketing inflation and high taxes.

Most of the actors have other full-time jobs and they do Nasir's movies as a hobby, filming during holidays. Shafique Sheikh, the lead actor in Malegaon Ka Superman, however, took leave from his job as a loom factory worker to act in the film. To keep budgets low, Nasir uses bullock carts for cranes and cameras are mounted on bicycles for action shots. The graphics are cheesy and cheap-looking.

Nasir says: "All of us travel together and just eat murmura (puffed rice) and sev (a local snack). We buy the costumes from the Chor Bazaar (one of the largest flea markets in India). Locations are mostly free because the people know us, and we get some friends to work for free."

Akram Khan, who plays the villain in Malegaon Ka Superman, is also the film's editor and multitasks further by composing its songs and score.

The Muslim women of Malegaon don't appear in front of the camera though. "And so they would write the script in a way that avoids having women characters," says Khan.

The satires are screened at small video halls - Malegaon has 14 of them. The films are all the rage in a tiny nearby town called Khandish because of the dialect of Urdu they use, as well as in far-off cities such as Lucknow and Hyderabad, which are comfortable with Urdu.

Compared with Nasir's early days when he had to produce a film with a mere 50,000-rupee budget, his movies have now received enough attention and financial support for him to double his budget. Today, he even has a television show, Malegaon Ka Chintu, based on a character from the town. Produced by the actress Deepti Bhatnagar, it is screened by India's SAB TV channel.

Khan never thought the documentary, financed by producers based in Singapore, would get this much attention, or even ever see a commercial release.

All was not well with Malegaon's leading man, though. Sheikh, the 28-year-old actor who played Superman, was addicted to gutkha himself and died of mouth cancer 12 hours after the film's premiere last September.

Although still dealing with the death of his close friend, Nasir says he remains excited for the future of his film industry. At the documentary's June 29 premiere, no less than the Gangs of Wasseypur filmmaker Anurag Kashyap attended and inaugurated its release.

"I never even thought that I would get to see this in my small life in a small village," Nasir says.

Three more Mollywood spoof films

• Malegaon Ke Sholay (2002)
Sholay (1975), by far the most popular film in India's history, is a quintessential revenge action-drama replete with violence, guns, songs and romance. The satirical version changed the name of Gabbar Singh, one of Hindi cinema's most singularly malevolent villains, to Rubber Singh and the female lead was Basmati instead of Basanti.

• Malegaon Ki Lagaan (2004)
Based on the 2001 film Lagaan, which told the story of a village oppressed by high taxes, set in a time when India was still ruled by the British. The movie's centrepiece was a cricket match that would decide whether the small town would have to continue paying high taxes. Malegaon's spoof version features a British ruler who forces the vegetarian Indian maharaja to swallow an egg, and if he doesn't, then his village's power supply would be cut off and the taxes would triple. The king refuses and a cricket battle ensues.

• Koi Hil Gaya (2009)
Back in 2003, Koi... Mil Gaya, starring Hrithik Roshan, screened to packed theatres as one of Bollywood's first "alien" movies – it was based on a story similar to Steven Spielberg's ET. The cute and cuddly alien in the original movie used sunlight as its fuel and Nasir's parody had the alien creature dependent on chicken tikka and vada pav (a popular Maharashtrian snack). Playing the lead role was Mahmood Shah, the town's Roshan lookalike who, in real life, is a painter.