The Movie Man

The inspirations and ambitions of a B-movie director

Nasim Ahmed studies his script on the sets of Wanted Don. RAHUL M FOR THE CARAVAN
01 June, 2013

ON A MARCH AFTERNOON, a ragtag film crew of around 15 were gathered on a dusty road in Najafgarh, in south-west Delhi. The focus of the scene they were shooting was a makeshift tea shop that had been set up on one side of the road; on the other, cameraperson Janu Bhawaria and his assistants adjusted their equipment to get the perfect shot of two characters, named Kareem Chacha and Raju Prince, trading repartee at the shop. Their efforts were complicated by the fact that they had no external microphones; the actors were forced to shout their lines over the cawing of crows and the roar of aeroplanes passing overhead.

But it wasn’t just audio that the group had to struggle with. This was a public road, and every few minutes, a car would drive by, passing through the shot. Members of the crew stood by the side of the road, gesturing frantically at every vehicle that approached, to wait for them to complete the shot. None obeyed. After almost an hour, the crew managed to film an uninterrupted take of the scene. They then shifted the camera, reflectors and other equipment into an adjoining farmhouse for the next scene on the schedule of the movie—Wanted Don, directed by Nasim Ahmed.

I first met Nasim one evening in September last year while wandering through the narrow, grimy lanes of Khirki Extension in South Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, and came upon a DVD shop in which young boys were glued to a television screen, on which played a Hindi-dubbed version of SS Rajamouli’s 2007 Telugu hit, Yama Donga. The walls of the shop were decorated with an array of posters of Hindi movies I had never heard of: Mere Watan, Bewafa Dilruba, Mrityu Gardh. Designed in blazing yellows and reds, these posters featured protagonists in sunglasses, holding guns; villains with thick moustaches; and nubile young girls. I bought a DVD of Mrityu Gardh, the title translated on the cover as “The Place of Death”. The credit on the cover read: “Director/Producer/Script: Nasim Ahmed”. Shameem Ahmed, who was watching over the shop at the time, told me that Nasim was his elder brother, and the owner of the DVD shop. He was also the protagonist of Mrityu Gardh, who, on the cover of the DVD I had just purchased, had blood-coloured paint dripping down his left temple.

Filmmaker Nasim Ahmed in his Malviya Nagar DVD shop. SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY FOR THE CARAVAN

Nasim, a soft-spoken man in his late thirties, arrived at the shop half an hour later, but proved impervious to my questions about his work. At home later that evening, I sat down to watch Mrityu Gardh, the story of how an evil feudal lord who terrorises a village is defeated by the protagonist. Though the performances were hammy and the editing tacky, the film brought back fond memories of Telugu movies I had grown up with, which had similarly overblown dialogue and which, like Mrityu Gardh, usually centred around the theme of revenge.

After I had dropped in at the shop a few more times over the next few weeks, Nasim began to speak more freely to me about his work. (“I thought you were seeking an acting role in my films,” he said later, explaining why he had tried to shake me off when I first came to meet him.) A filmmaker, producer, writer and actor, Nasim operates in the loosely structured, low budget B-movie network spread across Delhi and its outskirts, as well as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. While directors from this world have little or no connection to the mainstream television and film industry, some, particularly those working in Bhojpuri, are supported by established companies like T-Series and Sonotek. Nasim, however, writes, funds, directs, acts in and distributes his own films. He is, in some sense, an outlier among outliers.

Nasim told me that he began his career after moving with his family from the city of Chandpur in Bijnor district to Delhi in 1997. He grew interested in the movie business the same year after accompanying a friend to watch a television shoot in South Delhi. “I decided I can make better movies,” he said. He spent the next few months meeting actors and saving up money, after which he began production on his first movie, Katil Dost, a story about a friendship between a smalltime thief and a contract killer. Since then, Nasim has made four movies, all on budgets between Rs150,000 and Rs500,000, using cast and crew that he recruits from smaller cities, as well as localities like Mandi House in central Delhi, where actors often gather in search of work. Each project can take him up to a year, after which he typically makes 3,000 copies of DVDs to distribute to shops in Delhi and small towns in Uttar Pradesh. “When I was a kid I used to love watching films,” he said. “Now, whether the films I make run or fail, and whether they get a good response or a bad one, I will keep making movies.”

Wanted Don, the movie he was making when I met him, is the story of two brothers, Tiger and Don, who are separated as children, and reunite as nemeses, only to die in the course of their confrontation. “Anyone who chases wealth meets an unpleasant end and that’s the moral of this story,” Nasim told me. In fusing the names of two Bollywood blockbusters together, he hoped he would entice people to watch the movie who “would want to go and see what happens when Salman and Shah Rukh are together on the screen”. I had been keen on accompanying him to his set, and an opportunity arose some months after our first meeting. “We are shooting the climax of Wanted Don tomorrow,” he said one day. “We will shoot for two or three days, through the night. Come along if you want to.” And so, in March, I found myself on the sets of Wanted Don in Najafgarh.

When the tricky shoot at the tea shop had been completed, the crew moved into an adjoining farmhouse to shoot sequences about Don’s confrontation with Tiger, who has been paid by Don’s rivals to kill him. Nasim stepped out of his director’s chair to take his place in front of the camera, as Don. Now Bhawaria, the cameraperson, assumed a much more significant role in the proceedings. He not only operated the camera, but also took over many of the directorial responsibilities, such as calling the shots and instructing the actors—even Nasim—in their movements and line readings.

One crucial scene featured a confrontation between Don and Tiger, played by Tasleem Qureshi, who had also acted in Mrityu Gardh and now runs a clothes business. Dressed in leather jackets and wielding prop guns, their faces slathered in makeup, Don and Tiger faced each other.

“Ready, rolling, action!” said Bhawaria.

“I have the revolver, too, Don! I will empty the bullets into you,” said Qureshi, raising his voice over the sharp barking of a dog nearby. “I have taken a contract to shoot you. Don, your game is over.”

“Tiger, to kill Don you need jigar (heart). Only Don has the jigar. The game of death is about to start. Do you want to play it?” retorted Nasim.

“Only Tiger knows how to play the game of death. Let Don begin the game and Tiger will finish it,” roared Tasleem.

By this time, daylight had faded, and so the shoot of the ‘game of death’ that was to follow was postponed to the next day.

The night shoot, of item numbers, was to take place in the hall of the bungalow. After a break for dinner, the cast and crew resumed work. Bhawaria now assumed the additional role of choreographer, improvising dance moves and teaching them to the performers, before resuming his position behind the camera to shoot them. The song was intended to be a classic rain-drenched item song, but the film’s budget could not accommodate a sprinkler. Instead, the crew relied on two water cans, which were filled and emptied over the performers’ heads before the shot began. Dripping, they then proceeded to dance to the song until they dried off, after which the refilled cans were emptied over their heads again. At around midnight, after an hour or so of work, the shoot was completed, and the cast and crew retired for the night to different corners of the bungalow.

I went upstairs with some of the actors, to a large room furnished with two cots and five dusty mattresses, and whose walls were splattered with paan stains and dotted with cigarette burns. “It’s hard to remember the beginning or end of my story,” said Parvez, an actor from Gorakhpur, once we had settled into our beds. “I haven’t gone home in the last ten years.” Another actor interjected to assure him that he would return home soon. “I will go back on the day the people of my village want to come and see me because I am an actor,” Parvez insisted.

Despite the rising heat in the room and persistent swarms of mosquitoes, people dropped off to sleep, tired after the day’s hard work. Silence descended over the room.

I left Najafgarh the next morning, but in the weeks that followed, I dropped in occasionally at Nasim’s shop in Khirki Extension. One evening, we sat inside after Nasim had wound up business for the day and rolled down the shutters of his shop. He spoke about his next project, Kalank, the story of a former police officer named Sikandar (to be played by him) who takes on a criminal who harvests the organs of children. As for Wanted Don, he still had a few more scenes to shoot, after which he intended to obtain a censor certificate so that it could be released in theatres. “Let me get one hit movie and everything will change,” Nasim said. “Once I get noticed in the industry, I can go to the big actors and producers with my scripts. Then, I will sell this shop, shift out of Malviya Nagar and just make movies.”