Call them cheap, trashy, pornographic, underground—C movies are a legitimate part of our filmic past, argues Ashim Ahluwalia. During his decade-long love affair with Indian-made exploitation cinema, he has found it to be not only deranged and scandalous but also accidentally lyrical and avant-gardist. While saluting its spirit which rejects established laws, conventions, standards and categories, he provocatively states that C-grade cinema is the one truly experimental Indian film form. In this excerpt from a forthcoming book, Ahluwalia describes how the C movie unwittingly breaks the patriarchal order and contains stylistic elements that lend themselves to radical filmmaking.
The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ taste – Pablo Picasso
The stars must have been aligned when, entirely by chance, I happened upon a sordid poster of a film-in-production called Maut Ka Chehra (Face of Death). It was the late 1990s and I had caught a glimpse of it in Super Cinema, a trade magazine crammed with unreleased C-grade films looking for distributors. The poster featured a man in a silver-foil suit ripping the heart out of a hairy gorilla. Blood was shamelessly handpainted all over the photograph. Around them floated cut-outs of garish nymphets offering breasts and thighs. A few midgets provided comedy. Everyone looked like they were about to give, or possibly receive, some form of sexual gratification. The blurb asserted: “Never seen before such sexy lover story.” It was all so nasty, and yet so incredibly alluring.
That image spiralled me into a decade-long love affair with C-grade cinema. I decided to make a documentary about the filming of Maut Ka Chehra, spending much of the following year with actors, producers and directors in the murky backrooms of the industry. Many of the films were pornographic, and therefore illegal. Eventually the documentary I wanted to make fell apart—nobody wanted to participate for fear of
arrest or of knife-wounds from gangland financiers. Years later, I returned to those abandoned experiences, reworking the stories and characters into a semi-fictional film called Miss Lovely. It’s only now, in retrospect, that I am beginning to truly grasp what dragged me into this cinematic wilderness in the first place.
One of the first C movies I saw was made by two men with missing surnames: Vicky (the director, who also inspired the name of my protagonist in Miss Lovely) and Suleiman (the producer). The film, Band Kamre Mein (Behind Closed Doors), is the tale of a freshly married woman called Seema, possibly the most repressed housewife on the planet. Eager to lose her virginity, she is shattered to find her new husband impotent. Eventually collapsing into a nervous wreck, Seema sweats her way through a series of seductions of family members who include her husband’s nephew Ravi. More seductions follow—one involving a male prostitute, and finally the icing on the cake: a lesbian liaison with Rosy, the sexy servant. Hallucinating about a sex potion that can make all her fantasies come true, Seema is left with no choice but to bump off her tiresome husband with a toy gun. A sprawling mess of a film, it left me with the desire to watch a hundred more.
The next thing I chanced upon, Ramesh Lakhiani’s Khopdi (The Skull), offered a twist on the same theme by adding rubber monsters to the sex-starved landscape. I couldn’t believe these films could get weirder, but they did. Unlike B movies that actually tried to follow through with a cohesive storyline, C movies never cared to do so. They were concocted to deliver cheap titillation to a sexually starved audience of working-class males. And yet, at least in the early days of Indian exploitation cinema, they weren’t hard-core pornography either. For decades, C-grade cinema and pornographic films followed separate paths, eventually marrying in the fleapits of India in the early 1980s.
Of course, sex and cinema have been friends since the very birth of motion pictures. The late David F. Friedman, maker of exploitation films in the US, writes, “After Mr. Edison made those tin-types gallop, it wasn’t but two days later that some enterprising guy had his girlfriend take her clothes off for the camera.” By 1899 the first totally nude females appeared in motion pictures, and within three years sexual intercourse had been captured on film. The exact date of the first pornographic film remains unclear, though two shorts that date from as early as 1907 have been identified.  In India it was possible to find 16 mm stag reels produced by maharajas or colonial rulers that showed their household help in erotic situations. As public demand for smut grew, these private productions would no longer suffice. New approaches of dispersal had to be invented. In C-grade cinema, producers would bypass the censors by never including explicit material in the main film. Even if censors demanded cuts it would have no effect on the outcome, for the forbidden reels, known 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 eleven-minute female masturbation sequence.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, “bits” reels were intermixed with any trash picture, popping up in the middle of Dara Singh wrestling movies, for example, and often containing full-frontal nudity. In the 1970s, these reels would also come to include explicit sexual activity stolen from scratchy Swedish or German blue films. By the early 1980s, however, Indian producers were no longer smuggling in European porn; they were very confidently shooting their own. Besides sex-horror films, several sub-genres were spawned by the C-grade industry, such as the female daku (bandit) picture, the tribal exploitation film, the domestic lesbian tragedy and the impotent husband melodrama. The most intriguing, however, was the medical film. In movies such as I.V. Sasi’s Teen Love & Sex (1982) and anonymous fare such as Lady Doctor, Gupt Gyan and Birth of a Baby, audiences were shown graphic footage of childbirth and venereal diseases. The basic idea behind these films cloaked in pseudo-science was to allow the mostly rural audience to get guilt-free peep at female genitalia. The camera would often participate like a doctor, probing the female body in the form of a medical check-up. Ghastly scenes would sometimes offer up diseased private parts for examination. Animated eggs would float across the screen, fusing with a barrage of creepy photographs and narration pinched from forgotten Italian sex education films.
It was no surprise, then, that the Indian middle class saw this as intolerable screen fare. Bollywood looked down on these films like poor, unwashed relatives that had arrived for dinner uninvited. And yet they couldn’t be dismissed because of their massive small-town viewership. Spurning the narrative weight of Bollywood, these pictures dealt in smutty, uncontrolled spectacle. They articulated what spectators truly desired—a vision sometimes deranged and scandalous, sometimes accidentally lyrical, but always dangerous if silenced and banned.
In a sense, my film Miss Lovely offers a sort of ‘revisionist’ history. Not because it documents the history of exploitation films, for such a record has never existed, but because it can be seen as an attempt to address an inequality in our conception of Indian film history. After all, our filmic past is not just contained in the worlds of the mainstream and parallel/art cinema movements, but in this shadow cinema as well.
C-grade cinema is authentically marginal, a cinema of the gutter, and the missing link between Bollywood and pornography, documentary and narrative, tradition and modernity. And what appears to be simply marginal soon exposes itself to be symbolically central. Through these films we can see how Indian society struggles with outlawed subjects: eroticism, violence, female sexuality and homosexuality. If most Bollywood pictures are about the Indian ideal of sameness and the things that bring us together (family, tradition, ritual), C movies are about our differences. This cinema breaks the repressive patriarchal order unintentionally—because it is wildly out of control.
In contrast to these eccentric, handmade films, Bollywood and other mainstream cinemas of the world are industrial projects of entertainment dictated by business. The dominance of manufactured cinema is now universal, trickling into our consciousness and expression. Over the last few decades, we as audiences have sluggishly consented to, and, at times, enthusiastically collaborated in these widespread mechanised
systems of pleasure, allowing a sort of hollow, plastic form of communication to become the norm, all in the service of decency, popularity, and turnover.
Ever since the invention of the ‘talking picture’ it has been assumed that films are an extension of theatre where a story should always be acted out literally before an audience (the camera) under controlled conditions. But cinema has so much more to offer. As filmmaker Ricky Leacock commented, in mainstream cinema “Control is of the essence. The lines are written down and learned by the actors, the actions are rehearsed on carefully constructed sets, and the rehearsals are repeated over and over again until the resulting scene conforms to the preconceived ideas of the director. What horror… None of this activity has any life on its own.”
In industrial cinema, the slickness of production conceals the lack of the real, the shallowness of themes, and a general exhaustion of cinematic form. Mainstream cinema exploits ideas and images from the past, from already-popular comics and literature and from any place it can find inspiration, raiding and appropriating until nearly every trace of purity, emotion and meaning has been worn out. If any cinema was truly to be called exploitation cinema, it wouldn’t be C-grade cinema with its cottage-industry production: it would be the mainstream.
Unfortunately the alternative offered by the art cinema movement, formerly known in quaint terms as parallel cinema, is no less uninviting. The early days of Indian art cinema were full of hope with Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak introducing a genuine, indigenous modernism into India’s cinematic culture which, at that point, was still largely rigid and theatrical.
It was just a matter of time, however, for state-sponsored parallel cinema to fill the gap left by these directors. A new breed of director and film emerged, claiming to be formally and authentically ‘Indian’ but lacking in historical consciousness. These films—with a handful of exceptions, mostly made by south Indian filmmakers—were hardly Indian in form, and had an obvious debt to a bagful of European films of the time. Some of the most ‘Indian’ art films of the 1970s were essentially Bresson, Bergman and Godard re-set in Indian rural landscapes. The oblique nature of these films and a notional relationship to ancient Sanskrit texts made these films criticproof.
If you questioned them, you didn’t ‘understand’ them.
By ‘tagging’ ancient Indian manuscripts and theory that the viewer might not know, and embedding them in an indescribable haze of content, certain directors got away with never being fairly assessed. Almost everything they made was considered unquestionably ‘brilliant’. But this also managed successfully to kill off, in subsequent generations, an interest in exploring new kinds of cinema. They had few successors, and left next to nothing for future generations of young Indian filmmakers to take forward.
There’s never been a better time, then, for a new generation forced between the two rather unsatisfactory poles of mainstream and art cinema to look at what the C movie involuntarily offers—with its accidental avant-gardism, its unlicensed madness, its underground spirit that rejects established rules, laws, conventions, standards, genres and categories. This cheap, trashy cinema recognises something every filmmaker can learn from: that expression is a primary purpose of the human organism, and without restrictions, it can detonate and flower in the purest, wildest, most beautifully unchained form.
One could argue that the C movie offers a third option, bursting with more formal potential than the two traditional tropes of mainstream and art cinema. In fact, as far back as the 1920s, artists and writers of the Surrealist Movement began to channel the unconscious as a way of revealing the true power of the imagination. They were the first to understand the exploitation film not as parody but as offering new aesthetic possibilities that reflected an unconscious, primal state. Paul Hammond, a critic who studied Surrealism, describes how these artists went prospecting for the latent meaning of movies, mining seemingly innocent-looking films for buried sexuality. Connoisseurs of garbage, they uncovered treasures of poetry and subversion in the bargain basements of cinema, in the C movies of their time. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, mentions a film he saw in the late 1920s that completely disorientated him. Titled How I Killed My Child and made by an anonymous priest known as Peter the Hermit, it is described by Breton as “a film of unlimited insanity.” Nor did the surrealists ignore the crumbling screening venues of these films. As Robert Desnos writes, “Above all, cinema auditoria must be afflicted with the same decay as the films they show.” The Greek surrealist Ado Kyrou was clear in his advice: “I ask you, learn to go and see the ‘worst’ films; they are sometimes sublime.” He described “the incredible Ship of Lost Women (1953), made by Raffaello Matarazzo, in which sadism, revolt, eroticism, religion and melodrama conspire to form a series of problematically linked scenes dependent on the commonplace, raised by its rigour to the level of pure involuntary poetry.”
The French poet Louis Aragon talks as early as the 1920s of ‘synthetic criticism’, suggesting an alternative way to interpret a film, a way to bring to the surface a film’s second, secret life. In a sense, any Kanti Shah or Joginder film is bursting with this hidden content: Sapna erotically handling a doorknob or Poonam Das Gupta sucking on a whisky bottle reveals a veiled space where society’s latent repressions can be found.
In production, as in consumption, C-grade cinema is a marginal, naïve enterprise, at once scandalous and idiotic, almost condemned to fail from the very start. So what is inspirational about these films? And can they offer any aesthetic possibilities for future filmmakers?
(a) THE DREAM FILM
The story, in the classical sense, is unimportant in the C movie. In Haiwan (1977), as in many other films of this kind, strange scenes that feel incomplete are inserted at random points throughout the film. Actors change, primary characters disappear and new characters are introduced. The C movie is spontaneous, episodic, associative and unconstrained by the rules of traditional narrative cinema. This, in the hands of a more able filmmaker, opens up all kinds of possibilities of form, not unlike those of experimental cinema. Such fractured storytelling charges a film with a strange energy, making it more unusual, more spectacular, more mysterious, and more taboo. Evoking more dream than reality, it signals the forgotten, repressed dimension of things.
(b) THE SELF-AWARE FILM
The centrality of spectacle in the C movie tends to disturb the normal cause-and-effect chain required to tell a story, and allows the filmmakers to get away with murder when it comes to continuity editing. Most C movies blatantly use stock music and recycled shots throughout. Shots of exteriors of buildings, thunder and lightning, breasts and thighs are shamelessly stolen from other films. Actors look into the camera while performing, breaking the illusion that conventional films construct. Whereas the classical narrative film accentuated ‘seamlessness’, the C movie does the opposite—falling apart at the seams—reminding the audience that they are, in fact, watching a film. This offers a far more post-modern, self-conscious viewing experience than mainstream films, which feel almost old-fashioned in comparison.
(c) A NEW VOCABULARY
This kind of cinema is full of unsteady camera work, underexposed and out-of-focus shots, and colour banding caused by poor-quality film stock. Yet, in a strange, accidental way, there is something magical about this style. In an unrelated text, the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas engages an idea that could quite easily be applied here: “I am sick and tired of the guardians of Cinema Art who accuse the new filmmaker of shaky camerawork and bad technique. In like manner, they accuse the modern composer, the modern sculptor, the modern painter of sloppiness and poor technique. I have pity for such critics. They are hopeless. If we study the modern film poetry, we find that even the mistakes, the out-of-focus shots, the shaky shots, the unsure steps, the hesitant movements, the overexposed and the underexposed bits, have become part of the new cinema vocabulary, being part of the psychological and visual reality of modern man.”
(d) A CINEMATIC RIOT
Ado Kyrou writes, “We seek a shock cinema with lightning and thunder, murderous passions, a lust for revolt” and in many ways, this is what C-grade cinema does. It centralises the role of the heroine (the heroes are usually sidekicks, unlike Bollywood, where the female characters are rarely significant); it displaces the natural order of middle class morality by introducing unbridled sex and violence; and it destabilises the status quo, forcing us to question many conformist tendencies that we take for granted. With a wild disregard for all rules and for the act of censorship, the C movie is no less than a cinematic mutiny.
We can see from many of these tendencies that C-grade cinema, quite unconsciously, is the one truly experimental Indian film form. Separated from their shabby substance, these films have stylistic elements that lend themselves to radical filmmaking. This cinema inadvertently blows apart filmic conventions, mapping undercurrents of desire while it does so.
Miss Lovely is inspired by many of these formal elements. Just like in exploitation cinema, the film uses little fragments of plot as loose frameworks to explore and exhibit the characters’ emotions, attitudes, experiences and reactions. Letting go of an allegiance to a written script, the film dodges regulation, developing organically. Its pulse and personality are not dominated much by ‘story’ but primarily by the atmosphere and people in it, their faces, movements, tone of voice, their stumbling, their silences—reality as exposed through everyday qualities of life, free from literary and theatrical dominance.
Possibly, future Indian independent filmmakers could draw inspiration and energy from the collision of discourses in C-grade cinema—psychological, sexual, political, poetic, philosophical—detonating these elements into new, uncontrolled forms of cinema. Instead of making films that reach us slick and dead, we could try and break that cycle through a complete derangement of the official filmic senses. And there is no better model for that than the cheapest, trashiest films one can find.
1. HAMMOND, PAUL. 1991. (ed) The Shadow And Its Shadow: Surrealist Writing on the Cinema. Edinburgh: Polygon.
2. SCHAEFER, ERIC. 1999. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959. Durham: Duke University Press.
3. SITNEY, P. ADAMS. 2000. (ed) Film Culture Reader. New York: Cooper Square Press.
1. Eric Schaefer, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True! A History of Exploitation Films,
1919-1959 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 6.
2. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
3. Richard Leacock, ‘For an Uncontrolled Cinema’ in P. Adams Sitney (ed), Film
Culture Reader (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 77.
4. Paul Hammond, ‘Available Light’ in Paul Hammond (ed), The Shadow And Its
Shadow: Surrealist Writing on the Cinema (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), p. 29.
5. Ibid., p. 24.
6. Ibid., pp. 29-30.
7. Ibid., p. 8.
8. Jonas Mekas, ‘Notes on the New American Cinema’ in Sitney (ed), Film Culture
Reader, p. 105.
9. Hammond, ‘Available Light’ in Hammond (ed), The Shadow And Its Shadow, p. 4.