“Have you seen ‘Russian Ark’?” a salesman quizzes curious customers outside Shop No.188 in Burma Bazaar, waving a CD packed in plastic. Their ‘No’ meets a look of disappointment and he goes on to say that the ‘beautiful’ film was made entirely in a single shot. “The cameraman followed the actors with a camera strapped to his body. You simply cannot count the number of rooms they move in and out of,” the short, jolly man exclaims. Interest suitably piqued, they decide to enter.
‘Sihabu World Cinema Collections’ appears like any other in a multitude of roadside DVD stores in Burma Bazaar – small, shady and cramped. A closer look reveals that both the shop and its salesman Shabbir Mohammad aka “DVD Shabbir” are far from regular. The writing on many of the 3000 DVDs is alien. This unique store, owned by Shabbir’s uncle, stocks the rarest shorts, feature films and documentaries from over 25 countries. Most are replicas of festival copies, sourced mainly from Malaysia and China.
Along with each DVD priced between 40-150 rupees, Shabbir offers his two pence worth. He is the poor man’s IMDB. Even a speech impediment does not deter the 32-year-old from rattling off director’s names, year of release, quotes, plots or making informed recommendations. He stops only to apologise, “I talk too much – a disease that comes with the trade.”
What started as routine 10 years ago steadily turned into passion. Instead of speed checking DVDs for glitches, Shabbir began pausing and watching whole scenes. “I was glued to action flicks before a friendly old customer introduced me to Majid Majidi’s work. The love for foreign films started then,” he recollects.
On a little TV beneath the counter, Shabbir watches films throughout the day. Despite the lack of college education and only a broken understanding of English, his grasp of cinema betters that of some present day critics. In his opinion flops should be watched to understand why they failed because “money and effort go into making them too.”
The generously shared trivia comes from careful accumulation of facts from CD back covers, books that customers show him and videos of the ‘making’ of various films. His constant advice is to remember the director’s name because, “He is the boss. There can be a film without actors but not a director.”
His love for direction is evident in the way he calls shots at the shop, skilfully guiding shoppers through the works of Bresson, Almodovar or Makhmalbaf. Shabbir’s profession often requires him to act but he harbours muted dreams of film-making, “I want to work with Majidi.” Then, launching back into the cubbyhole reality of his job, “Do you know he started out as an ice-cream seller?” he adds.
By a process he calls ‘brainwashing’, Shabbir convinces buyers to try new kinds of cinema, “Most people are restricted to one genre — action or romance or comedy. I encourage them to see something different.” The only customer he has not managed to outdo is Nasrin, his wife of three years. “If I watch films at home, I have to do without meals,” he laughs before adding, “But my wife is the greatest gift God gave me.”
Students of cinema form the major chunk of his clientele which also includes dealers from other states and foreign tourists. Shabbir once sold an American professor as many as 300 DVDs. But business is unpredictable, ranging from low sales to bulk orders. While online download sites threaten profits, he remains unperturbed. “Every trade is bitter-sweet. From inside this shop I get a chance to see other countries,” he shrugs.
Though he would like to launch his own business, he refuses to make plans. “You can never plan enough because things will happen when they have to. I try not to think too much.”
This is perhaps why DVD Shabbir is a happy man.