Excerpt from an Interview with Ashim Ahluwalia, director of Miss Lovely (2014) and John and Jane (2005), by Sudarshan Ramani. The full interview appears in Ten, the upcoming issue of Projectorhead.
Miss Lovely is about the transformation of Bombay. You see the 80s Bombay, ten years before the Free Market opens. And the end of it, you get a sense that people have moved on to different careers. I found that very poignant, there’s a sense that it never happened.
I think it’s true. I feel like that. I grew up in Bombay, in the Socialist India of the 1980s. This was a place of rotary phones, trunk calls, black and white doordarshan, a channel that actually went off air after a few hours in the day. They would say goodnight and then your TV just went blank, with no transmission anymore. No incessant, endless media. When I walk down the street now, I sometimes wonder where I am because it doesn’t look or feel like the same place I grew up. It’s quite ghostly actually. This idea of displacement appears a lot in my first film John and Jane (2005). That film is about the desire that we all have to be globalized “fake Americans” and it questions what it means to be “Indian” anymore. Miss Lovely, in a sense, goes back further, to the end of the 1980s and into the early 90s when socialism ended and our “globalization” began. Huge things have shifted in our lives but not many artists or filmmakers seem to be interested in these things.
In John and Jane you reveal your interest in adopting and creating new forms, and also in working with non-actors.
John & Jane was technically a “documentary” because the characters in the film and their spaces were all real. And yet it feels like science fiction. Those are real call centre employees but they are kind of performing themselves. This hybrid mix of documentary and science fiction comes from certain formal choices, like shooting on 35mm rather than video, or having every shot be static and highly composed. That immediately breaks the feeling that it’s a “documentary” which is usually shot on video and is handheld and improvised. It evokes an uncanny sensation; it makes you question what you’re watching. Is this real? Is this all made up?
I’m interested in the language of film. For me cinema has become very boring, particularly in the last twenty years or so because the language has become repetitive. So we have our “Bresson of today”, our “Tarkovsky of today” and our “Ozu of today”. It’s a sort of retro-fetishism because you don’t have a language of your own.
I have read a little on the production of the film. Initially it was going to be a documentary and it was intended to be your debut, before John and Jane. So how did that come about?
I came back to Bombay and I was interested in making a space for myself but I found it difficult to fit in because I studied experimental cinema in a small American college called Bard, under filmmakers like Peter Hutton, people who worked outside the American system. When I lived in the US, I almost never watched American films. What I did watch was Asian cinema, because I had been unexposed to anything other than mainstream movies growing up in Bombay. I was very excited by the possibilities of Asian film –particularly the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s.
I decided to make a documentary about the filming of a C grade film called Maut Ka Chehra, spending over a year in the murky back rooms of the industry. I felt like an outsider when I returned from film school, and this cinema was clearly an “outsiders” cinema, made illegally and independently. I could relate to that. Eventually the documentary I wanted to make fell apart – nobody wanted to participate for fear of arrest or a knife-wound from gangster financiers.
I felt that the cheap exploitation film offered me a third space, a space that nobody ever discussed, as opposed to the typical “Art Cinema” versus “Bollywood” dichotomy that everyone from Ray, Ghatak and even Guru Dutt had to struggle with. I felt that one thing I had to do was break that dichotomy because that’s always forcing a certain kind of film to go into production. Maybe Ghatak wanted to make a musical but he would never have done that because this dichotomy existed you see. Commercial cinema in India tends to mean Heros, songs and dancing, and art cinema tends to mean “serious issues”, oppression and a total lack of humour. So I felt that my first film had to be a redefinition of what an Indian film can be. I wanted to make something that confused and blurred these categories and the C grade film kind of does that accidentally. It felt like the right place to start – to find fresh roots, engage an alternate film history, free myself from having to chose between two simplistic categories. Many of these cheap, sleazy films films are unintentionally experimental and very cinematic, they can also be politically very subversive, and that was exciting.
Were there any films in particular that stood out?
One of my favorite films is Naya Nasha, which is actually more of a B-movie, which means there is no sex in it. It’s apparently directed by someone called Hari but I believe that BR Ishara actually made it. He was kicked off at some point and never given credit. Naya Nashaa is a story about a traditional Indian housewife, played by Nanda, who gets addicted to LSD. So it’s in the format of a melodrama. She has these old college friends who continue to provide her with her fix. The whole thing is so gloriously twisted. It’s like she’s getting her fix yet she’s married to an orthodox doctor who is this beacon of citizenry and all that. She has a child but she’s tripping through the day.
And there’s a miraculous scene when she gets married to the good doctor and she’s taken a ton of drugs on her wedding day. It’s a proper Indian marriage scene but with the bride on acid, sweating and twitching, with close-ups of the pandits shot through fractal lenses. Insanely tense filmmaking. It’s also very radical in terms of the female protagonist, and the way it subverts the weepie narrative until things get so out of hand that she accidentally kills her child. It’s like Fassbinder meets Sam Fuller but with an RD Burman-style soundtrack composed by Sapan Chakraborty. You know, there are others too. Private Life by BK Adarsh and Honey by Sheetal are top of the list as well.
I grew up in the 90s so I sort of remember that landscape, early 90s where you still saw posters of these C-Movies cluttering the streets. I didn’t see them, my family was middle class but I was aware that it was there and there were people seeing them. How widely were they seen?
They were seen very widely in villages, small towns and working class cinemas in the cities. I was recently asked to write an extended piece on the history of sex films in India. It goes way back, like Maharaja and colonial stag films from the 1920s – mostly shooting their domestic staff in the nude on 16mm – and then later in the 50s and 60s where you have more hardcore domestic pornography shot in secret. By the 1940s, stag films were already being shown in circus tents across small town India. It finally all ended in the late 1990s with the mass availability of VCDs, and eventually the Internet.
In C grade cinema, producers would bypass the censors by never including explicit material in the main film, and even if cuts were demanded, there would be no real effect on the outcome. Because the forbidden reels, know in Bombay as “bits”, would make it directly to the projection booth of the cinema, at night, carried by hand or on a bicycle. Here these sex reels would be spliced back into the main film, often in a random spot. So in the middle of a tragic death scene, it wouldn’t be unusual to suddenly have an 11-minute female masturbation sequence.
Some of the inserts were quite jarring; at times it was like watching something by Stan Brakhage. The porn reels were sometimes so scratched that they looked like hand-painted experimental films. There’s a whole secret history of Indian cinema buried in there.
The film we see at the beginning, in the context we see here is quite beautiful (HOUSE NUMBER 13) is ugly but beautiful, here it’s beautiful yet ugly. Was it difficult getting the rights and the clip of that film, because of the conditions of the print. The colours looked quite good.
We restored all the old films that we used in Miss Lovely. The negatives were badly damaged – many were dug out of basements or back rooms after decades and had fungus all over them. It was quite a long haul, to track the filmmakers who were mostly dead, then find their families, find the rights holders; it became like an archeology project, digging up an ancient civilization of sleaze. But there was no other way to get access.