The trouble with being an original talent in Indian cinema is the sense of being in the wilderness, with no small patch of grass for the stray cow to graze in. When a movie that is truly original manifests itself in Indian cinema, a film like Miss Lovely where every cut is labored over, where the actors are directed with grace and subtlety and where the compositions have a visible consistency from beginning to end, you see the film and you don’t know what to make of it because there is literally no context to provide explanation for its very existence, a fact the film is very aware of.
The film’s opening is a thing of beauty. The credits highlight Ahluwalia’s fascination with patterns and textures, which is a recurring focus throughout the film, whether it’s the pale green textures of Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s shirt as he stretches across the frame when crossing down the aisle of a train or the interiors of the ceiling of a shady building, one of whose rooms is a repurposed film set.
The first scene is a movie-in-a-movie, a lame low-rent horror production that throngs the screens of shady theatres and whose posters and bills we recognize splattered across Bombay. Ahluwalia recreates the distinct look of these films with a deft touch. We recognize the faded color, the limited lighting but the clarity with which he presents this lends it a beauty that it otherwise would not have. The ghost when it appears is not scary, merely strange and unusual. The multiple exposures of the ghost as it descends down a staircase, a simple trick made beautiful in context.
The title Miss Lovely refers to a dream of a film. A dream that is disappointing and unfulfilling even when, especially when, it comes true, a failure that parallels the film’s success in succeeding to excavate beauty from the margins. The film portrays a world where the fulfillment of desire requires an engagement with the undesirable. In other words, the film’s subject is prostitution, one which in this film extends beyond selling your body or pimping the body of the woman you love but to prostituting your dreams, the ultimate obscenity.
The glimpses we get of sexuality in this film, the shooting of sex scenes for various softcore exploitation horror films often revolve on physical contact with the other. A “suhaag rath” has the bride tied down only to be fondled by a man with skin deformities, the rape of the beautiful by the ugly. Ahluwalia takes the standard premise of horror films, one common across the world, to create a rich ironic vision of desire and false promise, made ironic and painful for the hollowness of the thing pursued, in the case of Siddiqui’s Sonu, a feature film that will allow him to break out of the shadow of his brother Vicky(Anil George-wonderful performance) and make a movie star out of his discovery, Pinky (Niharika Singh).
Ahluwalia sets up Sonu’s doom at the beginning, a wonderful moment of insight where Sonu and Pinky “technically” meet in the train for the first time, where Sonu gazes at Pinky and we cut to Pinky feeling the gaze, looking at Sonu and then looking away. This moment is worthy of Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel, a film about mistaken glances and ignored gestures, to which this film would compare favorably. It also compares to the Ferrara film in keeping key moments of the action off-screen, we glimpse Sonu offering Pinky a part in his movie and the next we see her, she’s a dancer in a music number for a “mythological”. Similar key actions are elided throughout the film. The voiceover by Sonu is opaque, explaining little in terms of character motivation and milieu.
The narrative of the film moves at a very steady pace, which counterpoints and estranges the familiarity of the settings, the distinctive visual look of the film, which recreates the tacky fashions and faded color of prints of old Hindi color films. The film’s rhythm allows it to linger on visual textures, the scratchiness of old mirrors, the syncopated illumination of disco lights. The claustrophobia of the framing imprisons the actors, prevents us from fully seeing the action, like when Sonu and Pinky are dancing in a bar and people throng the foreground and background, making us preen our necks to gaze at them, which suggests so much strongly the complete lack of privacy of their world.
Miss Lovely is a film that builds up plot threads for several Bollywood movies even if the milieu it portrays, the now nearly finished industry of C-Grade movies (thanks to Internet porn), is shown with a lot of research to actual production conditions. We have a crime milieu, which goes far in rendering sympathy for Vicky, to his brother and his crew an Alpha Male sleazebag but in the actual scheme of things, far below the food chain to his gangster producers and distributors. Ahluwalia’s eye for clutter in the early scene where he’s beaten at broad daylight on the poolside where middle-class patrons look apathetically and embarrassedly at the action suggests his helpless plight. We have the romantic interlude between Sonu and Pinky where they kiss on a boat ride, this scene is shot with genuine sincerity that you forget that the former dreams to make her the “star” of his low-budget sleaze film. The denouement takes us into the space of melodrama with brothers against brother, the location a dirty shack to shoot a “blue film” and the chase sequence of guilty crook and self-righteous policemen shot with the sadistic enforcement of justice shown in countless Bollywood films.
Ashim Ahluwalia’s film is about its own loneliness, about its own lack of claim to any cinematic lineage. Its sense of lacking a sure ground to stand on is mirrored by the lives of his characters, who expend considerable energy for no reward and little honor. Its aesthetic energy and focus is all the more commendable for its refusal of even the tiniest commercial compromise. If Indian cinema is to have any future or release from the tacky dullness and insipidity of the mainstream than it is Ahluwalia’s film that best represents it today.