Clad in a black suit and vest, Salim Shaheen roams around the snowy mountains of Bamyan in Afghanistan, preparing to shoot for his 110th movie. The Afghan casually picks up a Kalashnikov rifle from a heavily-guarded security official to use as a prop for his production. “Don’t worry I will not shoot,” Shaheen says as he bursts into laughter.

What drives someone to produce, direct and act in more than a hundred films over 35 years in a country that has been torn apart by decades of war and where popular art is frowned upon? Radio journalist Sonia Kronlund documentary Nothingwood gives us a behind the scenes look at what has motivated Shaheen, a prolific filmmaker and a superstar in the country’s nascent film industry, to keep going through strife and conflict.

Shaheen is billed to be one of the only actors who consistently produces low-budget films in the country where a five-year Taliban rule till 2001 had seen a complete ban on cinema, television and all other forms of entertainment. The country has since then been the stage of the America’ longest war and in the conflict zone, theatres few and far between and there is little support for efforts to make movies.

The 85-minute documentary was screened under the World Cinema category at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 12-18). “In Afghanistan we say Ya markh, ya cinema: It is either cinema or death for me,” Shaheen told in an interview. “I will try to make cinema better in Afghanistan in spite of the country’s situation.”

Nothingwood (2017).

‘Afghani Dharmendra’

The name Nothingwood aptly describes the state of Afghan cinema – unlike Bollywood and Hollywood, the industry here is almost non-existent, as Shaheen points out a few minutes into the documentary. Shot over three years, the film revisits the eccentric all-round performer’s childhood, passion for the medium and the economics of his largely self-financed low-budget films with his regular co-stars Farid Mohibi and Qurban Ali as well as his family members, who often act in his productions. A self-confessed ardent admirer of Bollywood actor Dharmendra, he calls himself the Afghani Dharmendra. “I remember watching his film Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) as an eight-year-old kid in Kabul,” Shaheen said. “Love was born that day and he inspired me to act in films.” The actor then fondly reminisced his visit to Dharmendra in 2005 (he says he met him several times) which left him awe-struck.

Even as it depicts the larger-than-life actor with all his quirks, humour, exuberance and confidence, the film makes clear that Shaheen has battled the odds to produce his films. For instance, the set of his film Gardab was attacked by a rocket during the civil war in the country that led to the Taliban’s forming the government in 1996. But Shaheen and his team went on with the shoot. “I make films out of blood in Afghanistan,” Shaheen said. “I will keep trying to make films in the country even though it is very difficult to make films.”

Salim Shaheen in Nothingwood (2017).

Shaheen, like many of his other co-actors, is a war veteran in Afghanistan. The actor was enrolled for military service in the Afghan army in the early eighties. But he uses cinema as a tool to escape the harsh realities of the country.

In a country where performing acts are often looked down upon to this date, the actors in Shaheen’s productions continue to put on a fight against common perception.

“Even if the government doesn’t support cinema, you can make a film if you find a good team with good director,” explained Farid Moribi, who has starred in more than 10 films with Shaheen. “But imagine spending thousands of dollars and not getting anything back in return. In India the industry is successful because you spend so many dollars as there are thousands of theatres as well. In the whole of Afganistan there are barely five theatres.”

Salim Shaheen in Nothingwood (2017)|Image credit: Pyramide International.

In one of the documentary’s most memorable scenes, Kronlund is travelling with Shaheen along the streets of Afghanistan in his vehicle when he sees a fan’s car come to a halt because of a flat tire. Shaheen jumps to the man’s assistance, lifiting the car while his fan changes the tires. This scene is delightfully juxtaposed with montages of Shaheen pretending to lift a running car in one of his films. “I am not just a star in movies,” he chuckles.

The actor who considers Hindi filmmaker Umesh Mehra as his big brother, dreams of doing a project someday in India starring Dharmendra and Shakti Kapoor. “I have a few films that I would want to base out of Afghanistan and India,” he said.

Describing the story of one of these films, he says, “There is a poor man in Afghanistan who suffers from a disease. He tries to get into India for treatment. I want Dharamji to be part of the project. I am financially unstable now, but will definitely make this film one day. I don’t want to reveal more of the plot because somebody else might be tempted to take it up.”

Salim Shaheen in Run From Death (2014).