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Interview: Ashim Ahluwalia resurrects the C-grade film industry in 'Miss Lovely'

On the surface “Miss Lovely” might have the appearance of a typical Bollywood movie, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a Hindi feature film which delves deep into the sordid back alley of India’s film industry of the 1980’s which churned out countless horror and soft-core porn movies. In the midst of this sleazy atmosphere is the Duggal brothers, Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Vicky (Anil George), who are among the most prolific producers of trashy C-grade films for Mumbai’s underground market, but while Vicky has no problems with what he does, Sonu is desperately looking to escape from this underground reality. When he meets the beautiful actress Pinky (Niharika Singh), Sonu sees not only the chance for escape but also the opportunity to make a real romance movie with her as the star. But as he works to make that movie become a reality, he ends up going down a road from which there will be no return.

The sights of 'Miss Lovely'-slide0
Future East Film
Ashim Ahluwalia, director of "Miss Lovely"
Photo by Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

“Miss Lovely” was directed by Ashim Ahluwalia who is said to be part of a new generation of Indian filmmakers who prefer to avoid working with Hindi film stars, and his films have been described as unconventional in the way they blur the lines between documentary and fiction. That’s certainly the case here as Ahluwalia’s film deals with an industry he has seen up close, and he invites us to journey into its murky depths. It was originally supposed to be a documentary, but when Ahluwalia couldn’t get those working in the C-grade film industry to be involved in it, he decided to make a fiction film instead. What results is an unforgettable movie that is as unsettling as it is intoxicating to sit through, and it’s one of those movies that I sarcastically describe as being good fun for the whole family.

I got to speak with Ahluwalia when he was out to promote “Miss Lovely” which is finally making its debut in Los Angeles and New York as well as on VOD. He was super excited to talk about it as it looks at an industry that has long ceased to exist due to the changes in technology and the widespread availability of pornography on the internet. It was fascinating to hear him talk about that as filmmakers today are dealing with a shift in technology from film to digital, and it’s a shift that many are not quick to embrace.

I was blown away by it and it was not at all what I expected. It’s more of a movie you experience than just watch.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Exactly. I think that’s really a good way to describe it.

I especially liked how you shot this movie on Kodak Super 16 and 35mm film as it gives the movie a really rough feel which in turn captures the sleazy nature of the business these characters are engulfed in.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Yeah, it was also about the end of celluloid. The whole period that these films were made in was kind of the end of celluloid and then you have VHS replacing it. In a way, that was the precursor to the digital age and this whole way of consuming sleaze I guess. It just moved to the internet in the 2000’s and then that was the end of that. So I think a lot of it has to do with this material that was so critical in the way these films are made and consumed. It’s crazy to think that they were shooting that sleaze on 35mm (laughs), and now people would just die to get their hands on that kind of access to celluloid, so it’s pretty much part of what the film is about.

Now some have suggested that “Miss Lovely” is part of a new wave of Indian cinema. How do you feel about the reaction this movie has had so far?

Ashim Ahluwalia: I don’t really buy that. I think there’s no new wave. There’s a couple of random individuals doing random things and they’re not really connected, and that has more to do with the fact that now people are more exposed to cinema and they’re getting excited by what’s happening in the rest of Asia and the possibility of digital, etc. I think this whole idea was kind of overblown. It was sort of a moment when they were trying to tie everything together. I think “Miss Lovely” is a very odd film honestly. It’s not unique. It’s not odd just to India; it’s just odd generally because it’s such a hybrid film. It’s just taking very comfortably in a way that most art-house movies don’t just take it from the musical, taking from a 50’s noir, taking from sex horror, taking from porn, maybe documentaries or experimental films and stuff like that. I don’t think it represents a new specific type of film from India, but I think this is definitely a moment where there is new stuff and it’s not just Bollywood, Bollywood, Bollywood.

To be honest, I’m not too familiar with Bollywood films…

Ashim Ahluwalia: Well you’re lucky (laughs).

I think the closest I’ve come to Bollywood so far is “Slumdog Millionaire,” but I’m not sure if that counts.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Well yeah but it’s borderline Bollywood honestly. New Bollywood is kind of like that.

How difficult was it to re-create the Mumbai of the 1980’s as you remember it?

Ashim Ahluwalia: It was really hard because most of the places were being bulldozed as we were shooting them. So sometimes at a location half the building was already knocked down and we just got them to hold for like a week until we shot a scene. It was literally shooting the last remnants of that kind of 80’s one hour hotels and cabaret halls and stuff. I would say that about 60 or 70% of the locations are gone now and it’s not even been two years. It becomes kind of a document of those places and that kind of time. It doesn’t exist anymore.

I read that you were not looking to romanticize or do a parody of the 1980’s. How did you manage to keep yourself from doing that?

Ashim Ahluwalia: Well I think there’s sort of like a hipster 1980’s thing and I really wanted to stay away from that. I didn’t want to just make like fetishes of all those little 80’s objects. For me, the reason is because I spent a year and a half hanging out with a lot of these people from the C-grade industry because I initially wanted to make a documentary. So by the time I was done with that one and a half year period it was very hard to poke fun at anyone because these are people that you spent so much time with and saw so intimately. It was hard to caricaturize them.

During the movie we don’t see a lot of the real world outside of the one the Duggal brothers inhabit. When it does intrude on their sleazy underworld, you feel almost as lost as the characters do as they desperately try to escape their circumstances.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Yeah, it’s kind of claustrophobic. I wanted the film to be like this kind of maze that you were trying to get out of and you can’t. The whole point is this kind of escape ends up being a fantasy of a film that could maybe get you out of there, but it’s sort of like endless passageways that lead into other passageways. It’s just a very interior, claustrophobic kind of environment which I think, for me, I relate to that. When you work sometimes in film you feel like that. You don’t have to really only work in secret cinema, but sometimes a bad day job can be like that. So I think that idea of you were always trying to escape but you can’t, I like that somehow.

This is your first feature film as a director, and your previous film was a documentary. What was the transition like for you from making documentaries to directing an actual feature film?

Ashim Ahluwalia: The first film I made was “John & Jane” and that was a documentary, but it was shot on 35mm and looks more like a dystopian sci-fi film than a documentary. Somebody told me that my documentaries look more like fiction and my fiction looks more like documentaries, so I’m really interested in this idea of what a fiction film is and what a documentary is. “Miss Lovely” is not a conventional or traditional film. It’s still quite loose in terms of its language and it’s quite experimental, so I don’t find much difference. I feel like I could slip in and out between these two worlds quite easily in some ways.

You once said that the raw energy of these C-grade filmmakers reminded you of why you set out to make films in the first place. What was it specifically about them that reminded you of that?

Ashim Ahluwalia: Well I think what happens is that when you start working in any capacity like in an industry or an environment, what ends up happening is that you become quite jaded as a filmmaker. You’re just like always thinking about how do I get money, do I put it in this thing, if I put this person in it then I get this money and then if I work with that person then I get this distribution, etc. I think what ends up happening is that you lose that energy and spirit of why you really love cinema. You don’t watch films anymore because you’re so jaded by it. But when I experienced these guys making films, although the films are very bad admittedly, the way that they would make the films would be so like run and gone. It would be like, “Oh are we running out of film stock? What we do? The actor’s not available? Get another actor to stand in for the guy.” So the character is now played by a different actor, or if you don’t have a shot then you put a stock shot in, or the police are coming into the building so you have to finish the scene like within 15 minutes. The whole anarchic energy of the way the films are made really reminded me of what independent film should be; just making it with such passion. It’s like the passion is going to make the film happen. It really inspired me in a way to just make something which I really love with some degree of madness and passion which I think sometimes gets filtered out of you.

I’m always waiting for the independent film world to explode again like it did in the 1990’s.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Yeah exactly, and then you see how it’s just been co-opted and it feels like such a tired kind of thing.

The characters in “Miss Lovely” are basically composites of the people you met in this industry. You said you originally wanted to do a documentary, but a lot of the people you talked to didn’t want to be involved in it because of the illegal nature of what they were doing. How accurate is this movie to those types of filmmakers?

Ashim Ahluwalia: A lot of the people that were going to be in the documentary initially, I got them to just play themselves in the background. So all the background characters are all like real C-grade people. All the secondaries are actually people that, when I cast them in a fiction film, were like, “Okay I’ll do it.” But they didn’t want to be in the documentary somehow. So a lot of those real elements I just kind of brought back into this movie in another way through another backdoor and just brought the realism back into it.

That’s surprising to hear that they did find a way to be in this movie without compromising their true identities.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Yeah, and as long as they were in costume they felt like they weren’t revealing too much of themselves, but they were playing themselves essentially. That just gave the whole thing a bona fide genuine authentic atmosphere that is just almost impossible to re-create artificially with actors who don’t know anything about that world. I felt it just brings another energy to it.

The cast is just spot on with their performances. What was the casting process for “Miss Lovely” like?

Ashim Ahluwalia: Well a lot of them are real people that, when you meet them, are so performative anyway. There’s a midget casting director, the little guy, and when I met him he was just so charismatic when he was talking to me about what he did. He is actually a casting director in real life, so he just had to do what he always does and he was really comfortable. A lot of them were really comfortable around the cameras somehow. It’s almost like they were waiting all their lives to be in front of the camera, and suddenly they just did that thing. And of course, if I gave somebody lines, finally they would never remember the lines but they would do their own thing which would be better than the lines I wrote. I would be like, “Yeah let’s just keep that. It’s much better.”

All the actors seem to have a wonderfully natural quality whenever they appear onscreen. It’s like there inhabiting the roles instead of just playing them, and it really sucks you into the atmosphere of the movie even more.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Well that’s because a lot of them really are those people, so that’s partly it. And the others who were more professional actors were now having to match their performance with someone who’s so bona fide and so real that they are like, “S—t! I need to get better at what I’m doing because I’m looking fake now in relation to this person.” So putting nonprofessional and then professional actors in the same space together creates a very interesting dynamic.

“Miss Lovely” reminded me a bit of the Coen Brothers’ film “Barton Fink” as both movies have protagonists who really want to make a difference in the industry they’re working in, and then they see their dreams get shattered in the worst way possible.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Yeah, I like that film a lot actually. That’s a very atmospheric film. The atmosphere is very much a character in the film, and it’s not just about the narrative. It’s just about the texture of that space and stuff. It’s a good reference I think.

Another movie reminded me of was “Boogie Nights” and the scene where the producers are talking to Burt Reynolds about switching from celluloid to videotape since it’s a lot less expensive.

Ashim Ahluwalia: Yeah. I think probably there’s similar interests from filmmakers because we grew up in a certain time and a certain place, and you’ve seen this shift happen to digital and it’s such a radical change in terms of what it means to make a movie or what a film even is. I think it’s all about a certain generation of filmmakers grappling with the shift.