Miss Lovely, Ashim Ahluwalia’s second feature film enjoyed a commercial run in January 2014 in limited screens, despite having played at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2012, and several other film festivals across the world. Two months after its release, I contacted Ashim Ahluwalia in the hopes of conducting a lengthy interview, which he consequently edited and corrected.
1 - “LAYERS UPON LAYERS” – INTEREST IN FORM AND PATTERN
When Miss Lovely starts we see this B Movie clip we see this man entranced by a beautiful woman who turns out to be monster. It contains I think the theme of the film – beauty and ugliness. The scene is about ugliness in beauty but the film footage is kind of beautiful in itself.
Yeah, I liked the fact that, in some ways, the entire film is encapsulated in its B-movie form within that first one minute. Miss Lovely unfolds in a way that isn’t linear – its associative, wandering… scenes refer to other scenes or other films. That opening comes from an actual horror film House No 13 directed by a forgotten South Indian director called Baby. A man enters a house, it feels like a dream... And then he's drawn to the painting of a mysterious woman, a woman you sense he might have loved or been obsessed with. And of course, the most horrific thing happens to him as he’s reveling in her beauty. I like the idea of danger being attached to beauty and the sense of betrayal that comes from not being able to differentiate between the two.
There's also the B Movie forms in the credits with these striking patterns.
Those are actually original backplate opticals from a film that was never made because the producer ran out of money. They had been sitting in a can for more than 30 years, like some phantom background waiting for a film title to be placed on them. So I just discovered those opticals and put my titles on top. It sort of made sense because I think Miss Lovely is my way of reclaiming and connecting myself to a forgotten strand of Indian film history.
So these were opticals made for original B films.
Yeah, they actually took a lot of trouble to put those credits together, you know, making all these beautiful patterns with ink and mirrors. I worked with Satish, the last opticals guy in the business, and he had already shut shop by the time I started doing the credits for Miss Lovely. I didn’t want to try and emulate this digitally, it would just feel fake.
Miss Lovely is full of recycled footage. All the C grade films that the Duggal Brothers make in the film are real sex horror films –some from directors of the “Golden Age” of Indian exploitation – Mohan Bhakri, Vinod Talwar. The sex bits are real too, mostly shot by anonymous directors. Ironically, there isn’t just recycled sleaze in Miss Lovely but some reused “high art” as well. A couple of shots of Sonu entering Bombay after the train scene come from a Mani Kaul film, Arrival (1980). He made it for Films Division, about immigrants coming to the city.
The film 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. Like 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 & 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 & Jane you reveal your interest in adopting and creating new forms, 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. Not many filmmakers are interested in the language anymore. They are just interested in digging up a language and then sort of repackaging, selling it as new. For example, the resurgence of “Slow Cinema” just bores me to tears because well Chantal Akerman already did this with Jeanne Dielman beautifully the first time around, and that was 1975, so why the fuck am I watching this again and again, you know? And I think that film festival thing really promotes this. It's nostalgia for a time when there really was cinema, you know. And I think cinema is dead and we are all pretending it’s alive.
Miss Lovely is all about that. For me it's about the idea of cinema, that beautiful treacherous thing.
2 – “THIS SPACE FOR MYSELF” – C-GRADE CINEMA, RESEARCH.
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 & 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 choose 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.
There are other films - 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. But most of it was before my time. How widely were these films seen in the preceding era?
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). The print quality is excellent too. Was it difficult getting the rights and the clip of that film.
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.
3 – “A DREAM OF A MOVIE” – GENRE, STYLE, USE OF ARCHETYPES.
The title Miss Lovely refers to a film that the hero Sonu wants to make, but he struggles to pull it off, and for most of the film, he carries it inside him like a dream.
It's a dream of a movie. There are all sorts of unsaid things you know. Like the title, Miss Lovely is such a trashy title. It means so many things and yet it means nothing as well. It's like a throwaway title that Sonu invents for a film he wishes to make someday, a romance. The critic Saibal Chatterjee said this so eloquently; in some ways Miss Lovely is really about the relationship to Bollywood that we all carry with us, or are forced to have. Even when you dream of a film, you dream of a cliché, you can't really escape that because the dreams come from the fact that there isn't anything else out there.
Sonu’s imagined film Miss Lovely is a romantic film; it could actually even be a Yashraj film today, if you think about it. And, then of course it's a title that, it's not spelt out in the film but it's explained in the screenplay, his brother Vicky steals and re-uses. He titles his porn film Miss Lovely. Maybe Pinky told him Sonu’s title? Irrespective, it’s a horrific betrayal, a corruption of the innocence of Sonu’s film. Or at least that’s how Sonu sees it.
I love the fact that romantic movies have similar titles to porn films – the same words take on different meanings. So the slippage of a beautiful dream, it gets pimped, becomes pornographic and cheap, and that becomes the title of my film which is talking about the C-Grade industry but is "arthouse". I like the fact that this title can be transmutated to so many different spaces you know. So the title for me, it’s really shitty and yet really poignant. It’s full of resonance.
Sonu is this dreamer but he's not exactly a nice person. Throughout the film, I got the sense that Vicky, the bad brother, is much more interesting. He's someone who's without scruples but he has a surer ground on reality and he suffers a lot.
Exactly! That's why I really liked the idea. See the whole film is built on a series of archetypes, a lot of stuff chopped and carved out of 70s and 80s Hindi films. It's got two brothers, a “good” one and a “bad” one, a love triangle; it's got all the clichés. What if you took all of the clichés, like the early days of the Nouvelle vague, yet obviously not pretending like we are in 1959, but being aware that we are in 2014, drowning in a media saturated environment where nothing is really referential to itself. Everything is referential to other things.
So this idea of Sonu, the younger victimized brother, I thought that's really great, because that's an archetype you buy into immediately. He's the passive victimized brother, and there's the dominant “bad” guy older brother. But what happens if the elder dominant guy is the one who actually has to do the work, who has a job. The passive, innocent younger brother is the guy who has the luxury to dream, because the other guy is taking a hit for him. The psychology becomes very interesting then. Because the elder one is actually more honest, he's doing a day's job whereas Sonu is not doing anything other than dreaming and bitching about his situation. So I always liked that about all the characters, that they are somewhat empathetic and somewhat pathetic. They are nasty and yet you sort of understand them and their vulnerabilities. In a way, this is like many people we know, no?
How did you create the film's distinct look, this faded-out look of old Hindi film prints from the 70s and 80s?
I wanted the feel of old 35mm Indu Film Stocks. “Indu” means silver in Sanskrit and was manufactured by Hindustan Photo Films, our own socialist Indian film stock manufacturer. Until the late 1980s you couldn’t get Kodak easily because it was a “foreign” import, so the bulk of the stuff was shot on Indu.
Mohanan, my DOP, is a man who really comes from celluloid you know. We are both obsessed with labs, chemistry, grain, we spent a long time developing the look, doing tests. I love the Agfa stocks used by Japanese studios like Daiei and Nikkatsu in the 1950s where it looks like Technicolor but the greens and magentas are all fucked up. So I really wanted that look combined with the warmth of Indu, to push the dampness, the griminess, the claustrophobia and bring out the atmosphere of that era. We worked with a lab in Germany and the colourist was stunned that we got this look photochemically. I guess Miss Lovely is about cinema, so it had to be about film stock in a way.
I was thinking of the lighting of certain scenes being very striking, and true to life. The bank sequence in particular, with those very depressing interiors and low lighting.
We, Mohanan and I, were very particular about not over-lighting scenes, we wanted to get that sense of spaces being decrepit and deteriorating. On both Miss Lovely and John & Jane, we mostly used source lighting. Obviously with digital that’s a piece of cake, but with film, not so easy! You have to push the film stock and do all kinds of other shit in the lab. Both my films have been shot on celluloid, but then I’ve only made two films in seven years. Sometimes I get the argument that to use celluloid is “indulgent” because of the cheap and easy solution that digital provides, but that is clearly coming from someone who doesn’t love images but loves products. It’s like saying don’t use that beautiful, rare acrylic paint on your canvas, here use these cheap chinese crayons instead. I’m obviously going to have to shoot digital soon, because celluloid is almost dead. So no need to hurry through that process because that’s going to be all there is anyway.
Did you prepare extensively for this film, was it all in the script or was it a sense of a vision which evolved during production?
I had a complete script prepared. The reason for that was attracting producers; they won't fund a film without a complete script. So the film was extensively planned and pre-written but for me the film is not something conveyed literally so when I was shooting and cutting it, I removed scenes that tended to explain things too much. I removed the literalness of the screenplay, and left it more impressionistic and open-ended in the final film.
I noticed that about the film. A lot of the story happens off-screen and events are suggested and implied.
Yeah, this is not so common in Indian films. We tend to freak out if we can’t immediately locate the “story.” But I’m fascinated with the possibilities of narrative, the digressions away from the story, constantly displacing the centre away from Sonu, giving you a sense that there's something else going on. A larger world outside plot points and the three-act structure, I guess. I like the structure of novels, of music, where you have a single large movement but so many potential other detours. That adds to the texture and rhythm of the experience. Most movies, it’s like you are at a keyhole, being guided about what to see and always watching the one thing placed in front of you. I like to dislocate that, let your eye wander and look elsewhere, like in life, where you find your way.
In traditional films you have main characters around whom the audience gathers, and the director, the screenwriter, the music composer are all trying to help you follow your hero on his adventures. I find that boring. So I try to make it more playful. I want audiences to know that there are things out there, outside the realm of any one person's experience. Things aren’t necessarily spelled out as they are happening. But when you see it and think about it, events strangely fall into place and that's what life is.
Given this style you create for this film, was it hard communicating that to your crew?
When I shot John & Jane, Mohanan initially thought I might be shooting an A/V for a call centre or something. He was like what is this? Why the fuck are you shooting this thing on 35mm? He knows me better now. On Miss Lovely, people thought I was actually making a sleaze film. So initially, there is a lot of confusion with the cast and crew, which I kind of love. It brings a sense of anarchy and wildness to the proceedings – which you then hopefully tame and sculpt over time. The actors are sometimes even more baffled than the crew. Anil George, who plays Vicky, was probably the most confused. About a year after he saw the film, he finally figured out what was happening.
Anil was upset when he first saw the film because I shot these long dialogue scenes that I hated when I saw them, but he was really happy with those scenes. They were like traditional Hindi film “dialogue” scenes where he gets to show us his acting chops. But I cut them and instead I ended up using all these out-takes where he'd forgotten his lines, like the initial scene in the hotel where everyone’s fighting with each other and he’s lying on the bed looking fed-up and frustrated. That’s because he’d actually forgotten his lines and it was his first film, so he was really stressed out. I had to use that because it was so incredibly real, and that worked much better than the scene I had written.
It’s an organic process. I use a lot of pre-roll and post-roll in the film, which means I use the parts before I say “Action” or after I say “Cut” when the person is no longer aware they are being filmed, so they stop “performing” and they return to being themselves. It recalls all these moments in life, which are so genuine, so messy, they just can’t be scripted.
4 – “EVERYBODY’S JUMPED SHIP” – NARRATIVE OF EXPLOITATION, PINKY’S CHARACTER
What strikes me as unusual about Miss Lovely is that your point of view in relation to the subject matter is fairly unusual in Indian cinema. To put it simply, the typical idea about such a subject is the narrative of victimhood, telling it from the perspective of the "Exploited Woman" but in your film, we have the perspective of mostly "the bad guys" – the exploiters. Pinky, the leading actress, is a very ambiguous figure in particular, sort of a Femme Fatale but someone you can't dislike.
She's definitely damaged by the city. But we don’t know her very well, because she camouflages herself to survive. We don’t even know her real name. I think there's a sense that she's melancholic and trapped but at the same time she's freed herself too. See I was thinking of all these Bollywood clichés, like Chandni Bar , in which women come from small towns to the big city, and supposedly they are virgins and gullible and get entrapped against their will. But what I've found in real life, working on this film and working in Bombay, is that people use this “small-town-girl-in-big-city” narrative. It feeds itself. I've seen many aspiring actresses try to pull this off, and they even come to believe it a little bit. What they do is present themselves as “just having arrived” when they actually have been struggling in this city for years, sometimes working as escorts for survival, and the “small town girl” story sort of caters to a man's sense of chivalry. And the men, having been programmed culturally to also participate in this narrative, then desire to be a hero to them. They think, “I have to protect her”; she’s defenseless, like Sonu does. But actually she’s got the upper hand. So people use this narrative in real life a lot. Of course, it can have unforeseen consequences.
So Pinky is sort of a shape shifter, someone who just allows Sonu to assume things about her, there's no information aside from what little she gives you, she's a blank mask on which you can project whatever you want her to be.
There’s a moment in her relationship with Sonu where she seems to have a chance to go back to a state of innocence, assuming perhaps that he is more of a simpleton than he really is. But this is doomed to fail because Sonu is as much of a performer as she is, playing out his own narrative of victimhood. He isn’t any more honest than she is. In a way, all the characters are stuck in various states of corruptibility.
Vicky is the one guy who seems to escape that desire to escape, that is participate in a self-perpetuating narrative.
He's the most honest, in some ways. He’s clear about who he is and what he's doing. He deals head-on with the harshness of survival. While Sonu dreams, he takes the beatings.
My feeling is that Pinky is the most interesting character in the film.
She is I mean nobody talks about that. I can’t recall a character like her in many films, and definitely not in Indian cinema.
She's not being cruel, she's being exploited but she manages to have some amount of control over...
She takes total control of herself. I think all the women in Miss Lovely – even though it is from the exploiter's point of view, the female characters are way beyond what the men are doing because they have a much more complex way of navigating the space, and they are navigating in a way that is far more sophisticated than these guys because they have to. The men are blundering and not very evolved, literally killing each other in the process…
…and destroying the industry...
Exactly! So after things fall apart, in this chaotic mess, the women remain clear about where they need to be. Even Poonam's (Zeena Bhatia) character, even though she’s been a loyal mistress to Vicky, you know she's been around for years, but I just love the fact she goes to work at a travel agency at the end. It's like "Fuck this, I'm going to work at this travel agency, I got a Guruji who has sorted me out" you know, at least for the time being. Everybody's jumped ship and these guys are still flailing.
It reminds me of this film by Chabrol, A Girl Cut in Two (2007), where you have a similar story of a woman surviving and triumphing in a situation that leaves men dry. Chabrol said, “A woman cut in two can put herself back together better than any broken man”.
I haven't seen that. One film that had a huge impression on me when it came to Pinky's character is Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower (1960). There is a quality to Pale Flower, I mean of course historically it goes back all the way to the Mona Lisa, but the lead character Saeko, you just can't place her and it unsettles you. You want to know more about her but you can’t, you can only project things onto her blank face. It becomes this mirrored relationship... that whatever she is, is whatever you want her to be so she can't ever be fixed. The more you desire her, the less you can reach her.
For me the best scene in the film is the scene in the train, where Sonu and Pinky come across each other, we see this moment but they forget this completely. There's this shot of Pinky staring at him and then looking away.
I love that scene too, this potentiality that never actually fulfills itself. It’s like real life, you see someone on a bus or train or in a public place, something draws you to them… you wonder what they are like for a few seconds. Then they are gone.
It also deals with this narrative that you mentioned, this young woman coming from the village to the big city. This is when we see it happen, when we see it the first time we think its a digressive moment, a stray scene but on second viewing it becomes part of this parallel narrative of both Sonu and Pinky.
That, for me, is the real task and difficulty of making films here. Indian cinema is so literal. Everything is shown and explained repeatedly. That’s because our films are very much about consuming them immediately and expelling them. You watch, are entertained and forget the film about ten minutes later. My films really need to be seen more than once. The first time you engage the formal language, the style, and then you see it again and understand the film. Just because you chose not to hand hold your audience, doesn’t mean that there is no script. There was a complete screenplay; it had an entire universe contained within it. It wasn't something I just invented. In fact, I had a scene on the train where Sonu actually watches Pinky before they leave the platform. She has a teary interaction with someone he assumes to be her “Nani” – so he assumes she's a small-town girl leaving for the city for the first time. But I removed that because it told us too much.
Later we get this sense of betrayal when you realize that she's actually a call-girl and looking back, that scene at the lobby before where's dressed in this schoolgirl outfit, you realize that her “uncle” was one of her clients too.
Yeah, her life as an escort is mysterious, just like it would be if your neighbour was an escort. You would have to infer, piece it together from interactions, use guesswork. Pinky keeps telling Sonu about her “uncle” who doesn’t like her going out with boys. All these older men are often around her. So she uses a traditional Indian girl trope, you know "my uncle is there, don't talk, don’t call, he'll get angry". But it's not an uncle; it’s obviously a rather special client. There’s a single shot, which appears right after Sonu and Pinky have a fight outside the bar where she meets Vicky. It’s her “uncle” watching them from a car across the road. It’s never spelt out in the story. He’s just there, like some phantom presence from her other, secret life.
5 – “THERE’S NO POLITICS IN INDIAN FILMS” – OUTSIDER TRADITION IN INDIAN CINEMA.
I found the background details fascinating. From watching this film you come to know how these films are distributed, the conditions in which they are produced, the whole class structure. You don't see that very often in Indian films, even the alternative films.
Because there are no politics in Indian films. I can only think of a handful of Indian films that are actually political – and by that, I mean, they question the social and economic conditions in which they are produced. They force you to think about the systems you take for granted. Where are these films?
For me, for a film to be political, it has to be formally political. Just using class or caste as a backdrop or story element, that is not political. It’s just dressing a traditional film up in a different costume. Just because someone dresses as a Brahmin and someone dresses as a Dalit and there is conflict that is not political cinema. It doesn’t question the viewer relationship to any of it; it doesn’t question production processes, so there's no politics in that. A profound cultural revolution only comes through changing the very nature of the way films are made and consumed.
We think of political cinema as Anand Patwardhan , and even though his heart is in the right place and I’m personally aligned to where he is coming from, that cinema is not politically aware at all because it’s essentially propaganda – and propaganda is a very conservative and right wing form.
Anand Patwardhan is conservative?
It's right wing-form with left-wing content. So it’s actually a contradiction. It’s no different from a political pamphlet. As liberals, we don’t question it, because we personally agree with many of the politics, because this is information we all need to have. But the films never question themselves, they offer you one kind of ideology in the guise of “truth” and I don’t like that. It’s as manipulative as a right-wing TV host trying to convince you of the opposite. All the formal elements – the talking heads, the images that “demonstrate” this or that, these forms can essentially manipulate you to believe any ideology. Why not use a different formal language that makes the audience question? Think for themselves rather than being “told” what is right and wrong?
I read something by Jean-Marie Straub talking about a political film he had made: “I had the wild dream of taking it round and showing it in factories. But this is just as much an abstraction since you can’t load people with films when they’ve been working nine hours a day.” At least that’s being honest about the difficult of making political cinema.
We are talking about class being formless in Indian films. But one film that achieves that, at least for me, is Company Limited (1971).
Of course, there are exceptions and these are the ones I like. I mean G. Aravindan is formally very radical, very inspiring, and Ghatak, of course. I do have an affinity for that strand of Indian cinema. It doesn't feel some fossilized museum artifact to me, even though younger filmmakers don’t seem interested in this stuff. For many, Ghatak is very difficult, but I feel in-sync with those formal preoccupations. I mean that drunk taxi scene in Subarnarekha (1965) – now, that’s something to get fucking excited about. When you are working in Bombay, within the Hindi film space, people sometimes ask me – “what’s your favorite Indian film?” and I may say Thampu (1978) by Aravindan and they're like, “no no… an Indian film”, and I'll say but that is an Indian film! But you are always gently pressurized into saying Sholay (1975) or something, even though I'm usually like, fuck that, because I'm not interested in that kind of thing. I’ll just watch Seven Samurai or a Sergio Leone Western if I had to.
So there's always this thing of “No, tell us what you really like, you must love Mother India” and I say I have a completely different relationship to Indian cinema. It's not the work that's irrelevant; it's the royal dictation about “what is relevant” that is irrelevant to me.
Nowadays you have this new yuppie audience, who are a little more aware of things around the world. And you have these self-conscious film-makers like Dibakar Bannerjee and Anurag Kashyap who are popular with this audience. Do you feel that Miss Lovely addressing the same audience, or their films are opening doors for you?
I think the commercial film industry is changing. The fact that Nawazuddin Siddiqui got his first lead in Miss Lovely and then got picked up and made Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and became a star – that did help Miss Lovely release in India. There are relationships between these things. So I cannot underestimate the importance of an industry that is opening up.
Having said that, it's the commercial industry that is going through that. I think Anurag, Dibakar, Ritesh Batra and a bunch of others have injected fresh blood into mainstream filmmaking. Even Yash Raj wants to get into the game now.
But I personally I don't think I belong there. I’m less excited about Scorsese and Tarantino, probably more enthusiastic about Nagisa Oshima or R. W. Fassbinder. I feel like an outsider but I do use the commercial scenario to get through that crack in the door.
I think genuine cinema will only flourish when the film industry is dead, which is to say, probably never. But you have to find ways. It takes a certain amount of madness. The industry always exists as a powerful dictatorship. The public is colonized by a type of language imposed by mainstream film. So I’ll probably always remain an outsider, but hopefully a happy one.
I’m not deeply rooted in Art House cinema either. The principle of the art-house circuit is reactionary, because it imposes a certain type of film and tends to create its own closed market. I’m not from the Mani Kaul school, which is going back to a celebration of pre-colonial culture. I'd rather be a trashy low-art guy than try and suggest that I’m some sort of Brahmin filmmaker, rooted in ancient Hindu aesthetics.
So I exist outside these two poles – the New Bollywood cinema and the old Art House picture - so I’m kind of fucked. But in a good way, because it's also very liberating.
Mani Kaul himself felt that. He said that he preferred Bollywood films like Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) over the parallel films.
Yeah because he and Kumar [Shahani] were outside the “Parallel Cinema” movement, the middle-ground cinema of Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen. I kind of agree with that sentiment. I’d rather watch a Mithun Chakraborty movie like “Suraksha” than most Parallel Films, which can be stiff and self-righteous. Of course, there are great exceptions, like Saeed Mirza’s first film Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) and Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (1986).
I was really shaped by a hatred for Mani Kaul when I was in my twenties. When I was starting out, he was like some sort of film guru, like go pay your respects to his work otherwise you can't make serious films in India.
Now enough time has passed that it's not a problem in that sense, and his work has been sort of sidelined by the new generation. Ironically, I’m actually beginning to open up to some of his films a lot more than I ever did. But that whole Darbari thing is something that I never related to. The idea of a filmmaking guru that hands over nuggets of information to the next generation, if you pay your respects dutifully. I don’t see myself as being a very good disciple.
I think that if anyone today, working in contemporary Indian cinema for the coming years, if they have an unusual idea for a film, or a different approach, they can cite Miss Lovely as a reference point.
A lot of younger filmmakers have come to me and said "Thank you for making this" - they see a whole new direction for their work now. That’s nice. I guess Miss Lovely helps redefine what an Indian film can be, so it frees up some space for new kinds of cinema, new forms, new categories. We can let go of the Bollywood vs. Parallel Cinema labels we’ve been living with for decades.
There's also this sense of a lot of Indian film-makers, like Ray or Ghatak, being very isolated. Do you see that as being the state of an Indian film-maker with an independent approach?
That’s true; the most interesting Indian filmmakers have always been isolated figures. I’m not a big fan of movements anyway because most of them are fabricated. It’s one or two guys, and three or four others usually doing what the first two are doing, and it’s usually fostered by film festivals to market these films.
After the 1960s, Iranian cinema was closest to having an actual movement, but there were a lot of strategic and tactical reasons for that. In India, our Parallel Cinema can all be traced back to either Ray or Ghatak. Ghatak was more complex, so certain “difficult” film-makers like Mani, Kumar and Kamal Swaroop engaged with Ghatak. Almost all the rest of them emerged from Ray.
The South is different. There are more unique, isolated filmmakers in the South who seem to emerge from nowhere. I find that freedom inspiring. Whether it’s commercial directors like IV Sasi, Ravikant Nagaich or Baby or more experimental filmmakers like Aravindan, John Abraham or even a Kannada film like Samskara (1970) by Pattabhi Rama Reddy – they definitely trip out more in that part of the country.
6 – FINAL WORD
Miss Lovely is interesting for this sense of cinema swallowing everyone at the end, it's not valedictory or hopeful about it.
It's about how cinema can kill you. It's funny because an old and rather legendary critic told me that it's the only film in the history of cinema that uses a VCR as a murder weapon! If that’s true, it's odd nobody used that before because it’s such a physically practical device to kill someone yet it’s so incredibly symbolic about the end of celluloid and the beginning of digital. Godard used to refer to Cinema and Video as Cain and Abel, he saw one medium killing the other – much like two brothers in a fratricide, like Vicky & Sonu.
So it becomes like modern myth, cinema destroying individual lives. You see it happen all the time whether it’s an actor who's lost the plot or a director who is destroyed by a studio. Orson Welles, Guru Dutt, Meena Kumari, the list is endless…
I get the sense that the end of the film, the last scene, is not meant to be taken literally, in that he's not actually on the film set, that it's not realistically possible for him to go there covered in blood.
The funny thing was I wrote the ending before I wrote the film. I loved the idea of a man in a bloody shirt having just murdered someone entering a set where everyone's in costume, so everybody's dressed in these Maganlal Dresswalla costumes and he comes in and fits right in. That would be the only place that nobody would notice him, because he would appear to be an actor in costume. Which in a way is true, because that is what he is. The way documentary and fiction collapse together in that last scene, and yet it all remains dreamlike – I was really drawn to that.
He sees this dream film of his getting made and yet it’s ugly. It's a reversal of the opening.
For me, Sonu’s dream of a film and a life with Pinky is so utterly destroyed that he needs to resolve it somehow. For me the film could have ended with him in jail – maybe he just remained there for years and years and his health deteriorated? I sometimes think of the end of the film – from the time he comes out of jail to seeing Pinky again as a kind of dream – a wish-fulfilling dream - where he emotionally resolves his relationship with his brother, and he closes his love for Pinky. That’s why the last voiceover is so confident – yes, we had found each other at last, you know…
I also had the perverse pleasure of ending with a song in such an abstract, unclassifiable film. A Nazia Hasan song at that. Pop culture, or more precisely, mainstream culture steals from artists all the time; I feel as artists we don't return the favor because we are intimidated by popular culture. I wanted to reverse that. You know, I'm gonna take Nazia Hasan or Illayaraja or Bappi Lahiri and make it unsettling, change its context, and there's nothing you can do about it. [Laughs] That comes back to rejecting this very Brahminical approach that art film-makers have had in the past. Don't touch that, its popular, it’s impure, it’s corrupt. I love all the corrupt stuff. I want to revive it with the poetry which it had before it was corrupt.
The whole film is about, someone was telling me, various forms of corruption, cinematic corruption, and moral corruption. I can relate to that.
The interview was conducted on 29th March, 2014. Special thanks to Devdutt Trivedi, Anoop Kabir Mehta and Suyash Bharve for their kind words, valuable help and support.
1. Doordarshan is the national Indian public service broadcaster. For decades it was the only channel on Indian airwaves, being closely tied to the socialist ideology of Indira Gandhi’s Congress led government.
2. Also featured in the issue. Cf, Notes on an Uncontrolled Cinema by Ashim Ahluwalia.
3. Chandni Bar (2001), directed by Madhur Bhandariker was a popular Bollywood melodrama dealing with the subject of girls at “Dance Bars” and prostitution.
4) Anand Patwardhan is a documentary film-maker known for films like “Bombay Our City” and “Jung aur Aaman” and “Jai Bhim Comrade”, famed for its social criticism and left-wing perspective.