In Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s 1989 film, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, communal tension remains at the heart of the filmmaker’s story. With actor Pavan Malhotra essaying the title role of ‘Salim Langda’, Mirza uses his protagonist to draw out the plight of the minority community; their ghettoized existence on the margins of society. Rampant corruption, the dramatic decline of the Urdu language and moral policing also dot the landscape of Mirza’s film, which ultimately, though, serves to remind the audience that there are no winners when Hindus and Muslims indulge in barbaric acts of violence towards each other. “Mandir, Masjid ke liye ladta hai aur marta hain gutter main,” we are told by one of the characters towards the end of the film.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai and Faiza Ahmad Khan’s Supermen Of Malegaon that released this past month, 23 years after Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (SLPMR), offer their own narratives of the nation state as seen through the eyes of their respective filmmakers.
Banerjee’s fourth film, grim in its tone, focuses its attention on how the poor are exploited in the name of economic development. Shanghai is a modern-day commentary on how the very government that ought to function for the people, will use every ruse to turn its back on them to further their own selfish agenda. The very goons who mow down anyone that dare stand up to their political masters are the ones whose families are affected most by the everyday machinations of this political class.
Khan’s maiden documentary/feature, on the other hand, is remarkably funny, but offers its own take of contemporary India. On the face of it, Supermen Of Malegaon documents the struggles of Shafique and his minimal film unit as they set out to make the ambitious Malegaon Ka Superman, a film tailor-made to suit the average Malegaon inhabitant in its attempted parody of the Superman series. Yet, on another level, Supermen Of Malegaon is never too far away from bringing to light the woes of small town India be it in the form of communal tension, continued subjugation of women or lack of sanitation.
“Smuggler ke kandhey pe kanoon ka haath,” says another of Mirza’s characters to describe the cozy relation that exists between people who, fundamentally, ought to remain on opposite sides of the law. Instead, the smuggler, in what is a reflection of the changing times in Indian society, is seen boasting of having greased the very system that ought to get him. “Apun ka dhande mein, neeche se upar tak, sabko pata lene ka. Size ke hisaab se, sabke liye, chaandi ka ek-ek joota.”
Dibakar’s Shanghai magnifies this rot in the police/justice system even more. Inquires are held without any meaning and if someone has to be punished, that person right at the bottom of the ‘food chain’ is the only one who may be held culpable. Here the police are no longer contending with gangsters. With the state having turned oppressor, the men in uniform must obey the government in power. In SLPMR, the protagonist is forced by the corrupt inspector to put his thumb impression on a ‘panchnama’ even when he is not present at the scene of the incident. In Shanghai, cops blatantly misrepresent facts despite themselves being present at the scene of Dr. Ahmadi’s murder. If anything, the long arm of the law is only shown to have regressed in its functioning between the time the two films were released.
In her review of Supermen Of Malegaon, Shubhra Gupta, film critic of The Indian Express, calls the movie, “The story of a small town whose communal make-up is apparent, without it being rubbed in. The cast and crew is mostly Muslim, mostly not well-off, mostly from amongst those who work with their hands.” Director Faiza Khan also broaches the subject of women not being allowed to set foot in the Malegaon film industry. She gets Farogh Jafri, the scriptwriter of Malegaon Ka Superman, to explain this as a kind of forced evil resulting from the lack of education for women in Malegaon. It is a self-perpetuating cycle says Farogh to summarise the entire situation. Shubhra’s observation and Jafri’s assessment are an all too familiar echo of Salim Langda’s “Yeh apun [Musalmaanon] ka area hain” or “Musalmaan log ko koi kaam nahin deta hain” and Aslam’s “Samajhte hain ki auraton ki taalim ka matlab hain behayayee ya jism ki numaayish. Sharaafat ke naqaab odh rakhe hain in logon ne” from SLPMR.
Filth, dirt and grime are the Malegaon Ka Superman’s nemesis Farogh Jafri tells the viewers in his own inimitable style in a scene from Supermen Of Malegaon that leaves the audience in splits. Why Kryptonite when we have every possible disease lurking round the corner to bring Superman down? It is an inspired thought by Jafr. He realizes exactly what will strike a chord with the Malegaon moviegoer, who, possibly, is exposed to all kinds of illnesses in the absence of proper sanitation. Shanghai’s protagonists, similarly, are seen regaling themselves with the idea of India despite Dengue and Malaria.
Bharat mata ki, Bharat mata ki
Tum jai bolo jai Bharat mata ki jai
Sone ki chidiya, Dengue Malaria
Gud bhi hai gobar bhi Bharat mata ki ja
Supermen Of Malegaon was made in 2008, but was commercially released in India only on Friday, last week. That makes SLPMR, Supermen Of Malegaon and Shanghai three very distinct films, made several years apart from each other and by three filmmakers with entirely different sensibilities. That I happened to watch all three films over the last 10 days gave me the opportunity to view India through the perceptive eye of three different individuals.
Unfortunately, the view in all three films isn’t exactly flattering. That’s not a good sign when three films are set apart by 23 years.