It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a documentary!
Faiza Ahmed Khan’s hugely enjoyable Supermen Of Malegaon is finally swooping down on PVR multiplexes on 29 June, a little over four years after it was completed. Supermen of Malegaon spotlights the tiny Malegaon film industry, whose output chiefly comprises spoofs of Hindi and American films.
Khan explores this scene by following the filming of Malegaon Ka Superman by Shaikh Nasir, who has previously made Malegaon Ke Sholay and Malegaon Ki Shaan. Nasir’s struggle to get his parody off the ground—from casting to shooting outdoors—pales in comparison to Khan’s own troubles, which have followed her right up to the theatrical release.
Exhaustion, rather than elation, is the dominant feeling, she said. “People keep saying that you must be so excited, but there is so much stress, so much work to be done,” said the 30-year-old film-maker. “I can’t remember the last time I had a long nap.”
Documentaries make for rare spottings at multiplexes, and their film-makers have to shoulder the burden of most of the distribution process. But Supermen Of Malegaon has had a uniquely torturous journey from inception to exhibition, which could merit a separate film. It’s the story of how a documentary financed by a fund in Singapore travelled to film festivals the world over, but nearly didn’t make it back home.
Struggle for space: A still from Supermen Of Malegaon. For documentaries, the movie theatre remains a no-go zone, mostly because they are perceived as highly niche, risky and low-return investments.
Inspired by newspaper reports of a home-grown film industry in Malegaon, Khan set out to make the documentary in 2007. She approached The Asian Pitch, a Singapore-based film fund that’s a collaboration involving television companies NHK of Japan, KBS of South Korea, and MediaCorp of Singapore. In exchange for producing the film for Rs24 lakh, The Asian Pitch retained commercial exploitation rights in perpetuity. Supermen... flew after winning the best documentary award at the Asian Film Festival in Rome in 2008. Even as it picked up awards at other festivals, including the Karachi International Film Festival and the US International Video and Film Festival, The Asian Pitch entrusted the India distribution rights to film-maker Sanjeev Sivan. Yet, apart from a screening on NDTV 24x7’s weekly programme, Documentary 24x7, in 2010, Supermen... remained largely invisible to Indian viewers.
Yet, the buzz continued to build around Supermen..., and several producers lined up outside Khan’s door offering to remake the documentary into a feature. The Hindi film company Bohra Bros even bought distribution rights for Malegaon Ka Superman, on which Khan’s documentary is based. The conflation of the documentary and the film that inspired it threatened to jeopardize the release of Supermen... at the last minute. Sunil Bohra, chief managing director of Bohra Bros, wanted Khan to excise footage of the feature film from the documentary. Bohra eventually agreed to let Khan release Supermen Of Malegaon unblemished.
“It started out as a film made for a television network, but it became much bigger than I imagined,” said Khan, who is now working on a documentary on redevelopment projects in Mumbai.
After Sivan’s contract expired in January, Khan stepped in as a distributor by reaching into her own pockets. According to The Asian Pitch deal, once the company recovers its investment, it splits the money earned from the film fourways between Khan and the three television companies that manage the fund. Khan has paid $5,000 for a one-year contract to distribute Supermen... in India. Although PVR won’t be charging Supermen Of Malegaon for screenings since it will be shown in a programming slot specially created to promote independent cinema, Khan will need to pay Rs7,000 per week to Scrabble, the digital projection company that has an exclusive tie-up with the multiplex chain.
Khan’s problems are unique, but the larger struggle of getting across documentaries to ticket-paying audiences isn’t. You can watch documentaries at cultural centres, festivals and art galleries, in stores in the shape of DVDs, and on television and on the Internet in the form of pay-for-view content.
Yet, the movie theatre remains a no-go zone, mostly because documentaries are perceived as highly niche, risky and low-return investments. Only a handful of Indian non-fiction films, such as Anand Patwardhan’s War And Peace, Madhusree Dutta’s Seven Islands And A Metro and Miriam Chandy Menacherry’s The Rat Race have made it past the gate in recent years.
War And Peace is possibly the first independent documentary to be shown in cinemas, apart from government-mandated Films Division newsreels and documentaries.
When Patwardhan screened his documentary directly at two multiplexes in Mumbai in 2005, he bore all costs, from publicity expenses to hiring the projectors to screen the film digitally.
“The shows did well, so ultimately we broke even. If I had a chance, I’d do it again; a film like Jai Bhim Comrade (his latest) will definitely work on that scale. What we need is cinemas willing to screen documentaries,” he said.
The struggle paradoxically only intensifies when documentaries manage to squeeze themselves between the week’s Hindi and Hollywood releases. The Rat Race bumped into its own set of hurdles when it ran at PVR multiplexes 20-26 April. Sophy Sivaraman, who runs documentary distribution company Sophodok and who helped Menacherry with the screenings, found herself doing much more work on The Rat Race than she had bargained for. “There was never any clear directive as to when the film was playing and where, but we couldn’t afford to put advertisements in the papers,” Sivaraman said. “Had there been enough publicity, we would have managed to pull off at least half the theatre being full.” Then there were little goof-ups that happened —because of a computer glitch, one show was described as “houseful” when it wasn’t. A monitor placed at the multiplex in Bangalore claimed that the film starred Julia Roberts. Another monitor said the film had Jaaved Jafferi and Javed Akhtar.
“You need a lot of money for distribution,” Sivaraman said. “You can’t go around saying it’s a documentary, man, just support it.”
Festival acclaim and media attention help nudge documentaries from relative obscurity towards mainstream attention, but the realities of the multiplex play catch-up. Prakhar Joshi, programming head at PVR Cinemas, picked The Rat Race for distribution, but he cautioned that documentaries always run the risk of being elbowed out by whatever else is playing on the screen next door. “There is a market for documentaries, but they will always end up competing with the week’s releases or the spillover from the previous week,” Joshi said. Documentaries that have more conventional appeal rather than serious-minded explorations of social issues stand a better chance at the multiplex, he added. He is optimistic about Supermen Of Malegaon, since it has generous lashings of comedy, but he also pointed to the Hindi movie that will carpet-bomb cinemas the following week: the Rohit Shetty comedy Bol Bachchan, starring Ajay Devgn and Abhishek Bachchan. For Supermen Of Malegaon, it appears that the adventure is only just beginning all over again.