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- Salim Shaheen's Nothingwood screened at Cannes' Directors Fortnight secti
The soundtrack of Nothingwood, French documentarian Sonia Kronlund's first feature-length film, is laced with hit songs from Guide, Jhuk Gaya Aasman and Kati Patang. On screen, these numbers - Aaj phir jeene ki tammana hai and Kaun hai jo sapnon me aaya among them - are performed with infectious gusto by the effervescent 51-year-old Salim Shaheen and his motley group of co-actors, one as eccentric as the other.
Right upfront in the 85-minute film, Shaheen says: "Here it isn't Hollywood. It isn't Bollywood. It is Nothingwood. We have no resources and no equipment." Hence the title. The documentary, a French-German co-production, is a celebration of the spirit of an irrepressible man who goes on despite the risk to life and limb that he has to take day in and day out in order to do what he loves the most.
"I was drawn to the magic of cinema after watching Yaadon Ki Baraat in a Kabul movie hall as a little boy," says Shaheen. "I knew I simply had to make movies." Starting out in showbiz as a teenager, he has since allowed nothing to stop him - the incredibly prolific producer-director has made over 110 films in a career spanning 35 years.
Shaheen arrived in Cannes with two of his co-actors, Faridullah Mohibi and Qurban Ali Azmali, both of whom figure prominently in Nothingwood. Ahead of the screening, the three men acknowledged the cheers of the jam-packed auditorium in true superstar style, waving, bowing and blowing kisses to the audience.
Shaheen's films are not dependent on intrinsic cinematic quality - they are all unabashedly Z-grade features shot on the fly. But they draw their crowd-swaying power from the unalloyed joy and the sense of identity that they give to the people of a land devastated by decades of war.
Nothingwood dives headlongs into Shaheen's world and offers a vibrant view of the fun side of Afghanistan, where even a masked young Taliban fighter admits that he loves the films that Shaheen makes because of the life lessons they deliver and the love for the country they espouse.
The film catches the plumpish Shaheen shooting in his native Bamiyan, currently one of the safer spots in Afghanistan. When Kronlund asks him on camera what he thinks of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, he vacillates for a while before answering: Those who have done this are enemies of culture, civilization and humanity.
At another point in Nothingwood, Kronlund expresses the concern that the location they are headed to might have landlines. Shaheen assures that the place is safe, but impishly adds: "Even if there are landmines there, we will both die for cinema." He indeed redefines the boundaries of 'passion for cinema'.
Shaheen's own fan following is not inconsiderable. "His admirers call him the Dharmendra of Afghanistan," says co-actor Faridullah who, by his own admission, does not watch films but loves acting on the screen. "It is always a pleasure working with Salim Shaheen." The actor laments that there are only three or four active theatres in Kabul today and that nobody save Shaheen invests in film production in the country.
"Shaheen loves Bollywood films above all else: the songs, the marriage plots, and the fights," says Kronlund, who has been visiting Afghanistan regularly since the year 2000 to make television and radio documentaries on the violence ravaging the country.
"Nothingwood took four years to make from the point I first met him," says Kronlund. "It was the renowned (Paris-based) Afghan director Atiq Rahimi who told me about Shaheen and his work." The shoot, adds Kronlund, yielded footage of 150 hours, including portions culled out of Shaheen's countless films.
Shaheen's passion for cinema has a childlike ring to it. "I make my films with money from own pocket. I do everything myself - produce, direct, act, sing... But the people of the country repay me with their love and support," he says.
Shaheen is now due to travel to the Netherlands for a couple of screenings of his latest film Farkhunda, a 30-odd-minute take on a real-life honour killing in Afghanistan. And as soon as he is back in Kabul, he will plunge into the simultaneous making of two more films.
Shaheen, a voluble man by any standard, cannot stop gushing about India and its cinema. "India is like my own watan (country)," says Shaheen, who has numerous friends in the Mumbai movie industry. "I would love to shoot a film in India one day," he adds.