Q&A| Ashim Ahluwalia
It’s the tale of two brothers who work in the pornographic film industry and fall out over a woman. That’s the one-liner for Miss Lovely. The whole caboodle is something else together—a universe of retro pleasures and pain, atmospheric interiors and decaying exteriors, marginal characters and forbidden dreams.
Ashim Ahluwalia’s debut feature, which will be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival later this month, follows from his acclaimed 2005 documentary John & Jane. A direct line runs backwards from the business process outsourcing hubs that came up in suburban Mumbai in the 2000s to the business and leisure playgrounds inhabited by the so-called C-grade industry in the late 1980s. Ahluwalia’s interest in creating what he calls “an encyclopaedia of interiors” leads to an aesthetic which references the city’s industrial past. This is pre-globalized Mumbai at its most evocative and perilous. If you feel uneasy while watching the film, you’re meant to.
Ahluwalia’s attachment to objects and physical spaces parallels his detachment from people—a trait typically found in the experimental cinema to which he traces his roots. The key characters are Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), his elder brother Vicky (Anil George), and Pinky (Niharika Singh)—people with bland, serviceable names who harbour tremendous passion and ambition. Sonu and his brother direct adult content sequences that are inserted into regular films during movie screenings. The story opens with one such insertion in the middle of a horror film, which is welcomed with raucous relief by the audience (Ahluwalia actually screened one such spliced film at a movie theatre, so the responses are unrehearsed).
The story follows, but often wanders away from, Sonu’s fallout with his brother, his attempts to go solo and his love for Pinky. Ahluwalia’s riposte to the sentimental tributes to Hindi cinema in recent years explores the decay and death of people and ideas, of an industry and a city. Amid a hypnotic interplay of colours, tones and textures that has been shot by cinematographer Mohanan, we see Mumbai like it’s rarely been seen before—wood-panelled offices, frosted-glass doors, stucco walls, leather sofas, art deco fittings, thick curtains, heavy chandeliers, floral shirts, disco dresses, spaces within spaces and corridors beyond corridors. In short, the Bombay that Mumbai is replacing. Edited excerpts from an interview:
‘Miss Lovely’ started out as a documentary. How did it become a feature?
In the early 2000s, I spent a year and a half hanging out with film-makers from the C-grade space. But nobody wanted to be on camera. This was reused as fiction. The characters are composites of various people.
The film is set in the mid-1980s when C-grade stuff was playing in all kinds of cinemas. This was the only way you could see a nude woman in socialist India. The movie is about the end of celluloid and socialism and about the beginning of video and digital and music video culture. The clips seen within the film are real stuff, none of that is recreated. It is a deconstruction of the Bollywood film—I worked with the archetypes and inversed them. There are two brothers, there is a love triangle. I start with the grandeur of film and end with a singular character, like a funnel.
The skin flick film-makers aren’t nice people to know—some of them are quite crude.
I started off by thinking of everything as romantic. I imagined the people as frustrated artistes, but I realized that they’re just hard-core Bombay guys who are constantly transacting. It’s not about them being crude, but the environment and the city itself is crude. I didn’t want to sterilize the situation.
There have been several cheerful tributes to, and jokey pastiches of, Hindi cinema in recent years. Where do you fit in?
There were two things I was keen to stay (away) from—parody and nostalgia. It’s easy to fall into the 1980s thing and think it was great. I didn’t want to commodify or romanticize the period. I wanted to go back to a time and texture I remembered. The tone in Miss Lovely is almost like a documentary in terms of recreating a period rather than doing a fantasy Channel [V]-style parody. I also wanted to stay away from Boogie Nights parody—I am not making fun of the scene or the people. I am not trying to say that it was a cool, funky time. I wanted to give it a poetry that was real.
But you are also detached from the past—you are not in thrall to it.
I don’t want to think of cinema as a dead thing. Cinema has to be formally alive. It has to take on the past, but engage with it. Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar was very inspirational for me in the way it defies categorization. It’s a new piece of cinema that doesn’t replicate something else. I don’t like these nudge-nudge wink-wink films—you know the reference, I know the reference, ha ha.
What I see as an adult doesn’t interest me. I don’t have Francis Ford Coppola as my benchmark. My relationship with Hindi cinema is through the prism of stuff I watched as a child. I have a lot of love for old Hindi films, like Don, Surakksha and Naya Nasha, directors like Ravikant Nagaich and B.R. Ishara. Texturally, the older films are very different. Take Naya Nasha—it’s about a housewife who is hooked to LSD and is tripping while taking her kid to school. Of course, the LSD is actually a Becosule (vitamin B) capsule, which is great.
There’s a feeling of time warping—of being underwater, in a sense, where everything slows down and looks vivid but also strange.
I liked the idea of having a film that feels that it’s about plot or narrative, but when you’re watching it, it becomes like anthropology. I told Mohanan that I wanted the film to be drenched in humidity—almost a literal underbelly. Everything had to feel like it was drenched in moss.
You’ve dug out a treasure trove of locations.
We were trying to recreate a Bombay of the mid-1980s that is also the Bombay of mid-1980s cinema. You will get it if you’re from a certain kind of background. I wanted quintessential Hindi cinema—the villains by the pool, the cabaret. Miss Lovely is an architectural film—it’s my kind of Bombay film, in a way.
It’s virtually impossible to recreate 1980s Bombay since there’s almost nothing left. Forty per cent of the locations have been knocked down. The party scene was at Naaz Cinema on Grant Road; the jail scenes were shot at the green rooms of Edward Cinema. The brothers work out of India Cine Lab at Kennedy Bridge. The cabaret takes place in Kitkat, which I had to restore for the film. We shot at 1-hour hotels from Colaba to Yari Road. Sometimes we got permission and sometimes we hired the place.
The times were flash but also faded. We spent a lot of time dipping costumes into tea and deteriorating them. I wouldn’t let anybody take a shower or wash off make-up. I wanted things to look lived in.
For screening details, visit www.mumbaifilmfest.com