Friday, November 22, 2013

Ashim Ahluwalia’s "Miss Lovely" –Toronto International Film Festival 2012

I had originally watched Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012. This response comes more than a year late, due to an extremely busy year preparing the doctoral dissertation, my solo show at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and numerous other engagements. However, the film left an impression on me, and I chose to revisit my earlier written reflections on it.

           Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely is set against the backdrop of the Mumbai-based 1980s subversive C-grade Indian cinema, which produced pornographic horror films. During my childhood in India, I remember, during bus travels between the capital city of New Delhi and my uncle’s home in Bareilly, a city a five hour ride away, seeing roadside posters and billboards for films I had never, otherwise heard of­ − films with names such as Diane (translating into “Witch”) or Chudail (also “Witch”!). These posters were usually found on bus stops in the smaller towns of Uttar Pradesh. I often found myself wondering what these films would be like: the painted posters were gory, and usually featured the face of a woman with large, bloodshot eyes. It occurs to me today that perhaps these films may have been part of the C-grade pornographic industry that Ahluwalia’s film is set in. The principal characters in the film are Vicky Duggal and Sonu Duggal, who create C-grade horror films under the banner Duggal Brothers.

         Miss Lovely opens with a striking shot zooming into the  red eyes of a horror film actress. We are soon shown Sonu delivering a few reels to the screening room of a theatre, and later speaking of regretting this action of “delivering” the reel. Sonu is somewhat detached from this system of creating and distributing these horror films and their pornographic after-portions on separate reels, and is desirous of financial independence from it as well as from his manipulative older brother. The name “Duggal Brothers” is somewhat evocative of the “Ramsay Brothers,” a family-based horror film industry which created pulp-oriented B-grade horror movies during the 1980s and 1990s in India. Ironically, while the younger brother Sonu sets out to create a “romance film,” starring his love interest Pinky, he eventually ends up shooting a pornographic film, on the sets of which he is caught and arrested during a police raid.

      The story is not straightforward; as the director himself stated during the question-answer session after the screening, the film disembarks and digresses frequently to richly explore its setting in this underground independent film industry.  An audience member asked about the independent art-house cinema in India, and Ahluwalia responded saying that there was no independent cinema in India when he had started making this film five years ago. Ahluwalia also stated that this film was originally intended as a documentary based on the C-grade film industry, which he stated existed since the 1980s through to the early 2000s, and that further, this industry functioned almost as an anarchic, independent system, separate from mainstream Bollywood cinema.

      He spoke of his challenges in creating the film, one of which was to locate a consistent cast. Since this film was based on individuals who worked in the C-grade industry, he employed a number of cast members from the actual industry itself. This was also partly the reason for his shift from a documentary to a feature film. A number of these actors and associates of the C-grade cinema were more comfortable playing a character than actually speaking about their work and experiences on camera.

 Miss Lovely successfully delivers his vision of crossing over a number of genres, such as noir, pulp, and semi-documentary. At the same time, it lacks a sense of cohesion at moments, perhaps due to his attempt to reference too many different moments of cinematic history. It is not in its filming techniques or editing that the film references a historical moment in cinema industry, like Tarantino’s Grindhouse project. Nor is it a parodic self-reference like the Bollywood-produced Om Shanti Om. An audience member used the term “period piece” to describe the film. Perhaps that term is the most apt description for Ahluwalia’s project. Ahluwalia himself admits that he touches a number of different genres in the film. He said he wanted to keep it serious, and not make it parody or slapstick, which would have been easy to do given the C-grade genre’s predilection for rubber masks, oozing fake blood, and overly dramatic sequences.

On the other hand, the film appears to make a few nods in the direction of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Le Mepris. Like Le Mepris, Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely features the making of film within the film. Much of the action in Ahluwalia’s film takes place at the sets of the film, or the cinema, or the projection room at the cinema. Miss Lovely also frequently features the backdrop of hotel lobbies, where parties celebrating the release of each Duggal Brothers production is celebrated. These parties are depicted as loud, saturated with drunken men, slippery film producers and distributors, scantily-clad and overly “forward” women wearing flashy 80s glam-style clothes, who sometimes burst out into catfights.  

Ahluwalia’s use of the characters from the C-grade horror films is also reminiscent of the otherworldly look of the Greek status and masks used by Goddard to depict the characters in the film shot within Le Mepris. The sets of these pornographic horror films are spectacular, presenting a combination of mystery, sensuality and the exotic. The visual sequences in Miss Lovely, such as the filming of blood oozing from the face of monsters is very evocative of the visceral nature of the film industry he studies.

Miss Lovely’s thematic focus and setting on the pornographic film sets, and portrayal of male figures of authority as the individuals who exercise control over these female bodies is also reminiscent of  the recurring shots of female nude figures in various lying and lounging positions in Goddard’s Le Mepris. In another striking parallel, while the lead characters are introduced in both films, they do not emerge as focal characters of the films until twenty minutes into the films. In Le Mepris, Camille does not appear until fifteen minutes into the film, and from thereon, her relationship and conflict with Paul becomes the focus of the film. In Miss Lovely, while the character of Sonu is introduced early in the film, he is not foregrounded as the leading character until much later in the film. His lead female, Pinky is not introduced until even later in the film. Once the lead characters are established, however, all other characters subtly tiptoe towards the background. Both Sonu and Paul are characters sandwiched or overshadowed by manipulative figures of authority; Sonu by his older brother Vicky, who is the primary force in creating these films under the banner of the “Duggal Brothers,” and Paul by the American producer Prokosh in Le Mepris.

The idea of the murder in Miss Lovely was actually inspired by a real event which occurred during the period that Ahluwalia made the film. An actress whom he had interviewed, as part of numerous other individuals during his making of the documentary, had been later found murdered. Ahluwalia spoke of how this is a recurring event in every cinema industry, when life begins to emulate films. Actors, actresses, directors and producers begin to live larger-than-life existences both on-screen as well as off-screen. He spoke of the trope of a struggling and emerging actress being found murdered, citing the example of the Black Dahlia.
            As much as I’m awed by the rich visual spectacle that some of his scenes offer, and as much as I think this film is a signal film in Indian cinema in terms of its subject matter and playful and slippages into and out of different cinematic genres, I am left  wondering at some parts of the film.  The journey of the protagonist  is a long and winding journey. How, when, why and by whom was the actress killed? Did Pinky have a previous liason with Vicky? Many questions remain unanswered. The film however does offer a satisfying glimpse into the world of the underground film in India.

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