Miss Lovely fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Indian director-writer Ashim Ahluwalia’s second feature opened at the Cinema Village in New York City last Friday. Everyone won’t like it but few will deny that it’s a uniquely made narrative about a subject we know nothing about. It’s set in Mumbai’s sex-horror underground film industry in the 1980s. Tough Vicky Duggal (Annil George) and his brother Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) made z-budget horror films, in which they insert illegal porno reels. Their gangster boss takes most of their profits and they can never break away. Sonu is disenchanted about his life and lets Vicky do almost all the work. He falls for a seemingly innocent movie extra, Pinky (former Miss India Niharika Singh), and promises her that he’ll finance a romantic film called Miss Lovely and give her the title role. He will have to steal money from Vicky, which might put his older brother in jeopardy with their boss. He doesn’t know that Vicky and Pinky have a past. I did the following interview with Ashim Ahluwalia prior to his film’s release.
Danny Peary: Had you lived in America before attending Bard College in the mid-1990s.
Ashim Ahluwalia: I grew up in Bombay, I lived there all my life and then I attended Bard and studied film. Bard was very interesting for me because it was a very experimental film school. It completely opened my mind to a new way of thinking about films and film language. Going to Bard made a big impact on how I think about film.
DP: Todd Haynes went there just a few years before you did.
AA: Yes, he did an MFA at Bard. It’s funny because I only realized that after the fact, and it makes sense because he’s one of those American filmmakers that I really connect to. I love his his amazing and very undervalued films.
DP: Were you known as one of the top film students there?
AA: I was known for being obsessive about cinema, I would watch ridiculous amounts of films and was a bit of an encyclopedia of this stuff. What I found interesting was that Bard film school was anti-establishment and in conflict with the American film industry and the narrative films Hollywood was making at the time. I have had a very similar relationship with the Bombay film industry. But I wanted to go back to India to make films because I felt like it was very oppressive to make feature films in the States, from Indian scenarios. [Note: In May 2013, Ahluwalia received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters from his alma mater, an award is "given in recognition of a significant contribution to artistic or literary heritage."]
DP: Tell me about your acclaimed first feature, the 2006 documentary John & Jane, which some critics don’t consider a documentary at all.
AA: It was my first film, and it was superficially a documentary set in a call center. A call center is where you get routed if you make a call to customer service. Usually your call gets sent to India. The people who answer your calls are Indian kids who have never left and use fake American names so the Americans they interact with might think they are in America. I thought that’s a very interesting space for both a documentary and a dystopian sci-fi film, because it reminded me of all the ’70s American dystopian sci-fi films I’d watched. The technology films were set in the early 21st century, which we are in now, and might have characters with chips implanted in their brains. It’s kind of fascinating how close these call centers were to that vision of the future that we saw in those films.
DP: So were you thinking of yourself as a documentarian before you switched from making a second documentary about India’s sex-horror films of the 1980s to making “Miss Lovely,” a narrative film on the same subject?
AA: John & Jane was technically a documentary, so that’s where I come from. My second film was intended to be a documentary about the making of a sex-horror film called Maut Ka Cehra [Face of Death] before it became my first fiction film, into which I incorporated a lot of documentary elements. I couldn’t make the documentary it because the people involved [including ex-con filmmakers] didn’t want to be seen. The funny thing is that I used a lot of the people who refused to be in the documentary in Miss Lovely. A lot of producers, females, and secondary and background actors are actually people from the C-movie industry, just dressed up in period costume. They were more than happy to play a part in a real movie as long they didn’t have to speak on camera.
DP: While watching Miss Lovely, I was thinking the whole time that it had come from a true story or many true stories.
AA: For a year-and-half I spent a lot of time behind the scenes for extended periods of time over with a lot of people in the C-movie industry. They were my subjects but nobody wanted to be in the documentary, for an obvious reason–they didn’t want to be arrested.
DP: They didn’t tell you that in the beginning?
AA: Well, they hadn’t really understood what I was doing. And then I said, “Okay, what you told me last night was really interesting, so can you tell me that again with my camera on?” And they said, “Are you completely insane?” I started realizing how serious the pornography issue is in India. There’s essentially a minimum of three years in jail if you’re convicted of distributing pornography. So the only way for me to do something with all the material I’d accumulated was to sort of set it in a fictional universe, and a series of different stories, urban myths, and gossip essentially became the basis for the screenplay for Miss Lovely.
DP: Was the C-movie industry your characters work in a step below the B-movie industry?
AA: It’s different . A B-movie in India, like in the United States, is a movie that has a low-budget but still has filmic aspirations. A C film in India was an excuse for a movie, and was just made so illegal sex bits could be inserted into something. The movie took just a few days to make and was just a place to intersperse illegal sex reels that would not go to the censors but directly to the cinemas.
DP: Was there an equivalent in India in 1980s to the American porn industry of the late sixties and early seventies?
AA: It was closer to the late 1950s and early 1960s stuff in America, almost like Doris Wishman nudist films and sex education films. We’re talking about a specific film period in Miss Lovely, the mid-80s, which is completely dead now. It has been wiped out by digital, DVDs, the Internet. Like everywhere else in the world. It’s gone.
DP: In the late sixties and early seventies in America, when porno became chic, we thought that soon Hollywood films might contain hardcore sex. Was that going on in India?
AA: No, it wasn’t. There was no connotations that we’d have anything like Bollywood movie and have porn in them.. In India, sex is so taboo, so it was hard to believe you could have a nude woman in a film when even a kiss was not allowed. You have to put it into the perspective of a very conservative culture, where men and women in mainstream films barely kissed. Only in the last five years are we beginning to see lip-to-lip kisses, and you didn’t see that before Bollywood. There has been almost no nudity, and breast shots were always censored, even for adult films. Meanwhile you’re having these guys secretly making hardcore porn films. Filmmakers were considered criminals.
DP: Were there a lot of trials?
AA: Yes, ,but unlike in the States, where it became a 1st Amendment issue, in India, it was “No, no, no, it’s illegal, you can’t do that, you go straight to jail.” There was really no respite. It wasn’t like there was some loophole in the law that somebody could use to get off. It was pretty much as criminal as killing someone. That’s the equivalent level at which it was judged.
DP: In your Director’s Statement in the press notes, you express admiration for the filmmakers you hung out with, saying that “the renegade filmmakers produced films out of nothing. Their raw energy reminded me of why I set out to make the films in the first place.” But in an interview you say, ” I imagined the people as frustrated artistes, but I realized that they’re just hardcore Bombay guys who are constantly transacting.” So were they frustrated artists or were they all hacks?
AA: They were hacks. When I met these guys, they weren’t the romantic artists that I thought they would be. However, I still felt very inspired by the way their films got made. They had an anarchic spirit, making these films in one-hour hotel rooms while running from the cops. The fact that they were distributed by hand reminded me almost of early experimental film, or another way of making films. I was excited by the guerilla style of filmmaking, how they were doing things outside the industry. You start running out of film and don’t have enough for the scene? You put in a free stock shot. I was drawn to things like that.
DP: In America, in the 1970s, we saw there were some talented, fledgling filmmakers making porno or exploitation films. Did you discover any guys making C-films who had talent?
AA: These films had a lot of weird things that were accidental or maybe self-reflexive, that I found interesting. There was always something in there. One film had the actresses on screen, who the director on screen was trying seduce, looking directly at the camera. It was the camera of the director in the film, but it was really the camera of the director of the film. This was Godardian kind of moment, where the director is, “Okay, do it for my camera, do it for my camera.” I don’t know if this director knew what he was doing, but suddenly it was really interesting. The camera becomes our perspective, and since there’s also a camera in the movie itself, the perspective shifts between a third-person and a first-person narrative. It was like this incredibly sophisticated formal meta-text, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is amazing,”
DP: So if you’re into Godardian and Brechtian alienation techniques, do you want us to remember while watching Miss Lovely that it is a movie?
AA: I like when you think it’s a movie, which is why I’m so interested in the conflict between documentary and fiction. Is this real, are these real people? Or is this a movie and everything is artificial? Formal questions do appeal to me, I think lots of filmmakers go along with the rules of the genres of their films–I find that boring. As a filmmaker I really enjoy that Miss Lovely seems to be a pop movie, then starts falling apart and becomes an art house film, then switches to sleaze. It doesn’t satisfy any classification and can slip between being a sex film and an experimental film or a musical and something Brechtian just by a little slight of hand.
DP: At various times you pause in the action and have static shots of structures and striking architecture. These formal shots remind me of experimental films, which your shorts were. Did anyone say to you, why are those images in there?
AA: Of course. The art house people are like, “Why did you put a song in there?” and the pop people are going, “Why do you have those structures in there?” It’s very interesting how much of their viewing experience viewers bring to the film–and where they want to steer it. They think, “Why don’t you just tell me the story? Why don’t you just tell me what happens with those guys?” I choose to remain somewhat opaque about characters and some people love that and some don’t.
DP: Your influences that I know about are from the seventies and eighties, but what about the thirties? I was reminded of Josef von Sternberg because of your emphasis on exotic decor, costumes, a crowded frame, and eroticism– the sense that you can smell sweat, perfume, sex, as when Dietrich’s women entertain.
AA: I do love von Sternberg.
DP: I was also thinking Busby Berkeley, just because of the way the characters maneuver through crowded spaces and backstage, as if everything were choreographed.
AA: Yeah, exactly, spatial stuff, I love that. I think you can also see that I’m a real big fan of novels. I’m oddly a big fan of Jim Thompson, and he’s somebody I really had in mind when I was putting the script together. When I was asking myself, “Why isn’t it coming together as a traditional thriller?,” I would always think of how Jim Thompson always moves between a crime novel and psychological portrait. He was a huge influence.
DP: Are your main characters, the Duggal Brothers, Sonu and Vicky, inspired by a real brother team who made C-movies for gangsters or are they fictional?
AA: The brothers in my movie came from a combination of things. I wasn’t making a biography of two real brothers but sort of a pastiche of multiple stories about brothers that I’d heard through the industry. In fact, the younger brother going to jail for making pornography was based on a real story. There is some history to the brother thing.. I found that in India and even the US, where you had the Mitchell Brothers ["Behind the Green Door"], there were brothers working together, particularly when their business was illegal, because they trusted each other. In the mainstream Indian cinema of the 1980s, it was common to have a good brother and a bad brother as the main characters. It was sort of like the cliché–one brother was a cop and the other was a criminal, and then at the end they’d come together. I really liked integrating ’80s film tropes into my movie about that time, except Sonu and Vicky Duggal come apart rather than come together.
DP: They reminded me of characters from gangster movies of the ‘30s. Other than loving his brother, does Vicky have any redeeming qualities? Sonu sabotages Vicky to make a movie starring Pinky but he never fully breaks away from him or the business he says he hates.
AA: They’re brothers that really hate having to work with each other. Family is celebrated In Indian cinema and I really liked the idea of two brothers who can’t stand each other yet make a gesture of loyalty. Even though Vicky is the cliché of the dominating older bother, I find him more straight. He’s the brother who actually does the work. He has a loyalty to his younger brother that Sonu does not have for him. He’s younger, but Sonu is always feeling superior to his elder. Sonu is not a very nice guy even through he’s supposedly the underdog.
DP: In the press notes it says Sonu is “dimwitted.” I don’t think he’s that.
AA: I don’t see him as dimwitted. He’s one of those guys who’s silently seething in the background and waiting for a moment when he can take what he can.
DP: Sonu is trying to make Miss Lovely, a romance starring Pinky. What would you have thought of this they’re trying to make? I think he’s trying to make the type of movie you wouldn’t want to see, right?
DP: So Sonu, your lead character, has a dream to make a film you’d hate.
AA: I think that’s true. Indian critics have said a very interesting thing, which is that Sonu is trying to make a film that would not allow my film, Miss Lovely, to exist. These films are dominating Bollywood, which doesn’t allow a filmmaker like myself to work.
DP: Sonu is played by a really handsome actor. Why was it important that you cast someone who is handsome?
AA: Do you find him handsome? That’s funny. Before Miss Lovely, Nawazuddin Siddiqui was a really struggling actor with no money. H had never had a lead role couldn’t believe that I would put him in the lead. “Are you sure you want to do this?” I had enough co-production money that I didn’t need Indian studio money, so I hired an unknown. Now he’s a star. Now he’s on the cover of GQ in India and stuff like that..
DP: Pinky is a conniving character, which is obvious to us but not Sonu. Do you hate her for it or do you respect that she’s just trying to survive?
AA: I don’t hate her. I find her actually a strangely sad character. I think she’s really had to work. You don’t know much about her, she doesn’t have a real name, her name keeps shifting. She’s not really someone being given the opportunity to do anything really other than work the system, which she can do because she’s beautiful.. She remains very enigmatic, like a lot of actresses that I’ve met in the industry, who say, “I just came to Bombay last month,” and they tell you a made-up name. Then I meet the same actress again two years later and they say, “Oh, I just came to Bombay last month,” and they have a different name. I have a lot of empathy for Pinky and all the characters in some strange way. Including Vicky.
DP: Pinky has a musical number in the Bollywood style. There’s nothing like it elsewhere in the film. Did you enjoy filming that?
AA: I loved it. There are a lot of earlier filmmakers, around the world and in India, that were able to slip between genres in a way that I don’t think we can do now, in the current state of the industry worldwide. You don’t have that degree of freedom.
DP: In your film, the police clear out a theater where men are watching a horror-sex movie. Were those people being arrested?
AA: Yeah. It’s pretty scary. So the idea that Miss Lovely was made and has been released commercially in India is hugely radical. The conversation that it has sparked never existed before it was made, it was just not in the public domain. Now of course it’s going the other way and people can’t stop talking about it.
DP: Your film has just a little nudity, so are people in India going to it for titillation of because they see it as an art film?.
AA: It took one year to get this film through Indian censors I said there’s hardly any nudity and you can cut the nudity. The film went to Cannes. After that the distributors wanted to get into the cinemas in India, and then the censors just made it very, very difficult.
DP: Did going to Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival help you?
AA: Yeah, that made me a valid, non-sleazy filmmaker. Otherwise it would just be considered a sleaze film. I will say that in India, the distributor did a very interesting thing. To give it a bigger release, they placed it in cities as an art house film and in small towns as a sex film. It has gone very wide.
DP: That it’s playing in grindhouses in India must be a dream come true, right?
AA: Yes, I’m very proud to say that my film has shown in Cannes and in the shittiest small towns in India.
DP: So now that you’ve have a hit and have become well-known in India, do you want to stay there to make films?
AA: I’m working on something that might be shot in Italy. It will be set in the 16th century in Italy, and be about Giordano Bruno, the philosopher. It’s an Italian-British co-production, a very different type of film.