Ashim Ahluwalia’s films tiptoe on a tightrope between documentary and fiction. John & Jane (2005), his award-winning debut film, was a documentary that “aspired to look like a dystopian sci-fi film”. A scathing comment on the outsourcing industry, it made Phaidon Press declare him one of the “10 best emerging film directors working today” in 2010.
Miss Lovely, his latest, has been selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard category at the 65th Cannes International Film Festival 2012 (16-27 May). Introduced in 1978, the category recognizes “original and different” work, awarding a Prix Un Certain Regard of €30,000 (around Rs 20.7 lakh) for the film adjudged the best in this lot. The film marks Ahluwalia’s feature film debut and is the story of two brothers, Sonu and Vicky Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Anil George), who eke out a living by making low-budget, sex-horror films.
Ahluwalia is fascinated by the way sex-horror films were made in the 1980s.
Ahluwalia spoke about the making of Miss Lovely, shooting in “Bombay” and the road to Cannes. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about ‘Miss Lovely’.
The film is set between 1986 and 1992—at the end of our socialist period. It’s a film about change, about transitioning out of one era and into something new. In film terms, it’s about the end of celluloid and the beginning of digital. John & Jane aspired to look like a dystopian sci-fi film while remaining a documentary. Miss Lovely tries to look like a documentary, while being fiction. It’s stylistically pop.
Where was the film shot? Did you have to employ ingenious methods to shoot peacefully?
I shot it over 44 days in 2010. I’m still finishing it as we speak!
The whole film is shot in Bombay—and I specifically say Bombay and not Mumbai, because that city in the 1980s had a different feel. I had to recreate cabaret halls, discotheques and apartments from that period, which was hard because nothing of that exists. It had to feel like the city I remember from my childhood.
We were the first film to ever be allowed to shoot in the West End Hotel, which is one of the most amazing locations in this city. They’ve said “no” to everybody from Chetan Anand to Nargis in the past, so that was a pretty big feat. We also shot in places like the Liberty preview cinema and the Kit Kat bar across from Metro (cinema), because that still had a little bit of the atmosphere of old Bombay.
Have you drawn upon or been influenced by Shohei Imamura’s ‘The Pornographers’?
If there is one cinematic influence that changed my life, it would have to be Japanese cinema. I love Imamura, Masahiro Shinoda, Nagisa Oshima and directors like that who worked, at least initially, on the cusp of art cinema and popular culture. I love The Pornographers but was probably more influenced by Imamura films like Vengeance Is Mine or Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth. I’ve always found great Japanese films to have something very Indian about them—the relationship of the individual to family and society, codes of honour, the way women are represented, even the melodrama.
Did you have any trouble convincing your cast of actors to appear in the film?
There were no preconceptions. I just told them that I’m making something crazy, it’s not Bollywood or a multiplex film. I think somewhere they trusted me. It was Nawaz’s first lead role—he had been doing lots of strong character roles but nobody wanted to give him a break. Niharika Singh had done some Bollywood films with Himesh Reshammiya that hadn’t released. Both were fed up with the industry at that point and then along comes this strange little film...
Did you have a particular cinematographic palette in mind?
I had a specific sense of overall design. I wanted it to look like something between a B. Subhash-Mithun Chakraborty film and a Japanese new wave film from the 1960s. I did not want it to look “realistic” and yet I didn’t want it to have this (Quentin) Tarantino retro-cool thing going on. The one person I know who understood what the hell I was saying was K.U. Mohanan, the film’s director of photography, who is a good friend. We worked on John & Jane together, so he knew what he was getting into. But at one point when he was lighting something with garish Ramsay Brothers-style gels, he turned to me and said, “This film isn’t going to ruin my career, is it?” That was a laugh.
A still from ‘Miss Lovely’.
How did you fund this film? Did you have to cast your net really wide?
Initially, I tried to get finance in India. We approached everyone, Balaji, UTV, etc., but they said it was not for them. Luckily, John & Jane had worked well internationally. It was the first Indian film distributed by HBO Films in the US. That kind of traction helped get finance from various co-producers in Germany, Japan, etc., and once that money was in, it was easier to raise the rest in India. It took almost three years.
Tell us a bit about the Cannes selection.
Cannes knew about J ohn & Jane because it had been at the Berlin film festival and Toronto. They have a pulse on what’s going on in cinema internationally and had wanted to see a rough cut of Miss Lovely as I was making it. I don’t think the rest of the world has as much faith in Indian cinema as we do, so they liked that we were doing something experimental and invited us.
‘Miss Lovely’ is concerned with the horror-sleaze films of the 1980s. What intrigues and repulses you about them?
The films themselves are pretty terrible, but the way they were made fascinates me. I spent a lot of time hanging out with the cast and crew of these films. These renegade film-makers produced films out of nothing. Here was genuinely independent film-making, misfits working on the margins with pathetically low budgets, making cinema with their own sweat, blood and tears.
What after Cannes? Are you looking at an India release? Do you foresee trouble with the censors?
Of course, an India release would be the ultimate achievement but Indian distributors are safe and star-driven. The censors are probably also not going to be kind to this film. But things may suddenly change. One must have faith, so I hope for the best.
Other Indian films at Cannes 2012
¦ Gangs of Wasseypur
Anurag Kashyap’s biggest film yet will be screened as part of Directors’ Fortnight, a non-competitive category.
The coal mafia provides the background for this film, which boasts of acting talents such as Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tigmanshu Dhulia. Its 320-minute run-time, a narrative spanning three generations and 60 years, and a 150-odd strong cast suggest epic proportions.
Vasan Bala’s directorial debut will be featuring at the oldest parallel competitive section at Cannes Critics’ Week—a category that has discovered such cinematic giants as Ken Loach, Bernardo Bertolucci and Arnaud Desplechin in the past.
‘Peddlers’ stars Gulshan Devaiah and Kriti Malhotra, both relatively new to Bollywood. Two love stories run parallel to each other in this film, where a man living a lie, an aimless drifter, and a lady on a mission run into each other. Bala, who has worked as an assistant director for Kashyap in the past, will also be in the running for the Caméra d’Or, awarded to first-time directors.