Tag Archives: Miss Lovely

An Ancient Civilisation of Sleaze

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.

Ahluwalia on the sets of Miss Lovely

Ahluwalia on the sets of Miss Lovely


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?

John and Jane (2005)

John and Jane (2005)


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. 

Nanda in Naya Nasha (1973)

Nanda in Naya Nasha (1973)


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.

Miss Lovely (2014)

Miss Lovely (2014)


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.

Only the Lonely: Ashim Ahluwalia’s ‘Miss Lovely’

Sudarshan Ramani

Niharika Singh in Miss Lovely

Niharika Singh in Miss Lovely

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.