When Ashim Ahluwalia submitted his second feature “Miss Lovely” to the Indian board of censors, it took nearly a year to get approval to show in his home country. It was a process drenched in irony as Ahluwalia set about doing exactly the same thing that the lead characters in his film do, splicing the film to make it more palatable to its target audience, only whereas “Miss Lovely” required 157 cuts to appease rules regarding sex and violence, the brothers Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Vicky (Anil George) busy themselves with cramming more of that stuff in as some of the primary purveyors of grindhouse films in India, an largely overlooked part of the prodigious Bollywood film industry.
It’s so overlooked, in fact, that when Ahluwalia was searching for a subject for his next film after “John and Jane,” a documentary which blurred the lines between nonfiction and narrative in telling the stories of six employees of a troubleshooting call center, he found it literally in the streets of Mumbai in the form of tarnished posters of movies he couldn’t believe still existed in any form. Yet another documentary was out of the question, given just how much the makers of such films operated in the shadows. Instead, Ahluwalia opted to make a”Boogie Nights”-esque epic about a pair of brothers who battle authorities and each other to keep their business afloat during the ’80s, their efforts complicated slightly when Sonu spots a ravishing woman who he wants to make the star of a production more ambitious than the skin flicks they’re known for.
For Ahluwalia, “Miss Lovely” offered a similar opportunity to do something ambitious, a rebellious and impressively grand look at a seedy counterculture made outside independently in a country where few productions can afford to go outside of the studio system. (In fact, it was only because of “Miss Lovely”‘s lack of a studio-mandated distribution date that allowed Ahluwalia to keep applying for a rating.) After making its way around the world, first debuting at Cannes in 2013, it has finally arrived on American soil, as has the filmmaker, who shared stories about the welcome intrusion of reality into “Miss Lovely,” its surprising reception in India and preserving obscure parts of the country’s past before they’re lost forever.
I grew up in Bombay, but I went to film school in the States at Bard College, which has quite an experimental, let’s say eclectic film program, which is quite engaged with Asian and world cinema. So I had a lot of exposure at Bard about how to think about film. One of the things that I did when I moved back to India was try and find the space in a pretty conservative film industry where there pretty much is only Bollywood song and dance spectacles, like are the equivalent of Michael Bay movies [in America]. There was also state-sanctioned, arthouse stuff, which for me was equally artificial – these repetitive, village life tropes, which just means that nobody was watching these films, so I didn’t fit at all in this space.
At that point, I happened upon some movie posters of these cheap sex horror films, which I had actually seen as a student growing up in Bombay in the ’80s when we didn’t have any exposure to anything else. I couldn’t believe that they still made these [films], and this must have been in the early 2000s, so I thought, wow, this could be a really interesting documentary to go behind the scenes of some of these cheap, illegal sex movies. That became a one-and-a-half year research project where I spent time to really get to know this space and the people working within it, the actresses and the actors and the directors. But when I was ready to pull out the camera, nobody wanted to be in the film. They were like, “No, there’s no way I’m going to tell you on camera what I told you last night when we were drunk because it’s illegal.” I started realizing the ramifications of shooting a sex movie in India meant a minimum of three years in jail with no bail because there is no official space for that. This is all done under the radar, illegally.
So that documentary fell apart, but I had all this material I didn’t know what to do with. I was quite depressed, honestly. I spent so much time in this world and seemed to be the only one who knew anything about it. Eventually, I made a first film, a documentary called John and Jane, which went to Toronto and I got some support after that to go back to this material and write it as a screenplay and set it in the mid-’80s to protect the people that have given me these stories.
And from what I understand, you were able to get people who worked in the industry to play extras in the film.
That’s what’s so amazing about documentary vs. fiction, right? The same people that didn’t want to sit there and be identified as a producer, or an actress working in the industry were very comfortable to play a role of a producer or an actress in the background because they were in costume and they’re like, “Oh, this is a real movie. We don’t have to do any documentary thing here.” It was strange, but the minute I switched the genre into fiction, everybody felt like they were okay. They were very happy that I even bothered to ask them to be in it.
Of course, in terms of the vibe, it brought another level of authenticity to it. [Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who plays] the younger brother Sonu is the only guy who actually studied acting, at the National School of Drama, which is a famous school in India. But it kind of made him self-conscious about his own performance because he had to match people that were so incredibly real. It created a very interesting dynamic between the non-actors and the actors. These guys [from the sex horror industry] were getting drunk on set and nobody could remember their lines. It was kind of chaotic and wild and because I come from documentary, that wasn’t something I was afraid of. I was really excited that it was spilling out of the page and into a real universe of all these things.
I just went with it. At times, I would shoot it as a documentary because people would be fighting. There’s a scene at the beginning of the film where the younger brother is fighting with the director, which was actually scripted, and they’re in a hot room and they start hitting each other. The [nonactor] didn’t understand that it was scripted, so he started slapping the younger brother back, actually very outraged that he was hit, so they started fighting in real life and I just rolled the scene because it was so much better than anything I ever wrote. So this quality of the whole film falling apart and yet being kind of contained was something that came from having just wild people on set.
I like that quality of the bizarre juxtaposition of an old school love of cinema as we knew it – predigital, widescreen, musical, the certain genres that come from studio filmmaking – with this pretty kitchen-sink, hand-held formalism. I’ve never seen these two things put together and I really liked the idea that what if you go from widescreen musical to somebody killing someone [in] this very neo-realist [style], then you go to widescreen and it’s musical and lush, then you switch back, these combinations for me, [make it] a film about cinema, not really just the secret world or the B-grade world. In a way, it’s a post-cinematic way of thinking about cinema as as a compendium of genres. It’s post-digital, the fact that we can put all this stuff together and make a pastiche, so it’s a new thing yet it references lots of old genres and old ideas of what makes a film a film.
Even though you were obviously making a very different film than the type the main characters do in the film, could you identify with Sonu’s hustle to get something made?
The space just allowed me to define myself as not being a traditional art house filmmaker also not a commercial mainstream filmmaker. I wanted to find a new, third space. The films [being made in “Miss Lovely”] are not creative because they’re not meant to be films; they’re just excuses to intersperse sex scenes in them. But there was an anarchic spirit with which these were made that reminded me of the New Wave and just the run and gun style of making a film with police chasing you and you’re shooting in a one-hour hotel. You have this energy of criminality around these films that gave the film a certain life. It reminded me of what independent cinema should be like, so somehow the connection was more in spirit than it was in terms of aesthetic.
Was it difficult to recreate this era? It seems like a lot of the buildings you were shooting in just two years ago were falling apart.
Yeah, most of the locations are now gone. We would be shooting in the front of a bar which had been already bulldozed in the back, so we’d be sometimes shooting in spaces that were literally collapsing around us. But that was the last residue of what was left because globalization [in India] is pretty much like China. All this stuff has been erased. There’s malls and new, very corporate-looking buildings [that eliminate] having any memory of this, so this becomes a strange documentary of all these spaces that existed because they’re mostly gone now.
It almost became a neurotic obsession to find every missing trace of this stuff now and it was like some weird archaeological project. Digging out films from people’s basements after 25, 30, 40 years sometimes and having to restore them. Even the films that I used in “Miss Lovely” were actually all real movies which I had to find and restore.
I wondered whether those scenes were real or recreations.
Yeah, those are all real, including the sex stuff. It’s actually what they call in the industry “bits,” which are bits of uncensored footage, so that stuff is all real.
Since this film is coming to America two years removed from when it premiered at Cannes and you have some distance from it, has your perspective on it changed at all?
It’s a weird film because actually it became more than a film, it became this cultural moment. I was making an obscure independent film which I never thought anybody in India would see. Then it was in Cannes and Toronto and Rotterdam, so suddenly it had this global [audience] And then there was [Nawazuddin], this struggling actor that was somebody I just cast as the younger brother, but because he was in Cannes wearing a suit, he got [cast] in a commercial film, which was successful, now he’s on the cover of GQ in India. So the film traveled from its underbelly, these tiny origins to [going] back to India and because of the global interest, distributors wanted to show it and it had a 400 screen release. Suddenly, the Indian press was talking about subterranean cultures in Indian life – sex and sleaze and other hidden things – which never existed before. It’s fascinating how it has its own life now removed from me. It just does its thing like a weird living organism.
“Miss Lovely” is now open in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent, New York at the Cinema Village and in San Jose at the Serra Theater. On June 27th, it will open in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline and Chicago at the Facets Cinematheque.