Miss Lovely is quite wild but I am excited to have it out there : Ashim Ahluwalia
“Miss Lovely is an architectural film, which is my kind of Bombay film, in a way. We were trying to recreate a Bombay of the mid-1980s and the cinematic effect, which was prevalent during that time,” reveals director Ashim Ahluwalia while talking about his first feature film Miss Lovely. In a remarkably candid chat with Pandolin, this contemporary filmmaker pours his heart out in a forthright manner. Read on to find out what went into the making and release of this bold plus controversial film set in the criminals depths of an obscene film industry.
What fascinated you to make a film set in the backdrop of Mumbai’s C-grade film industry? How did you arrange funding for it?
For about a year, I spent a lot of time hanging out on the sets of Bombay’s ‘C’ grade film industry. I was planning to shoot a documentary on the making of a sex-horror film called Maut Ka Chehra—a feature that was being cranked out in four days by a bunch of ex-convicts. Technically, anybody who shoots sex scenes in India is a criminal but this whole world of filmmakers that were criminals was extremely fascinating to me.
Unfortunately, the documentary that I was trying to make never happened since everyone refused to be interviewed. Most of them had gangland connections and their work overlapped with actual pornography, which is obviously totally banned in India. I got immensely depressed after having all this research and nothing to do with it. Eventually, I wrote a fictionalized script based on these characters and stories and called it Miss Lovely.
It took me three years to raise the funds for this film. Initially it was very hard but ultimately we got some French, Japanese and American collaborators. It was really difficult putting all this together because the kind of film we were making didn’t exist at that time. It only happened because I had made a documentary earlier [2005’s John & Jane] which went to a lot of festivals and sold to HBO Films.
How much is the film inspired by real experiences and what sort of research went into the scripting of its scenes?
Almost the entire film has been inspired by real stories that I heard while spending time in the C grade industry. The characters are composites of various real people but are obviously disguised by the fact that it’s set in the 1980s. It’s a way to protect people’s privacy. Although even now people from that industry can recognize the stories when they see the film. The film clips shown within the film are real and none of that is recreated. There is a lot of overlap between fiction and reality in Miss Lovely.
What was the look of the film envisioned by you and the cinematographer K U Mohanan?
K U Mohanan shot my first film, John & Jane too. We are like brothers separated at birth as he gets me completely. We are almost always on the same page and discuss everything.
Now, this film was about the end of celluloid i.e. the end of cinema, as we know it. Hence, I didn’t want to shoot digital and it needed to be on film. I wanted Miss Lovely to look like it was shot on the Indu stock of the 1980s, which is now obsolete. I visualized a very warm, grainy and a specific desi look for the film yet keeping it beautiful. I aspired to create a feel that is reminiscent of Asian cinematographers such as Ping Bin Lee and Chris Doyle.
I told Mohanan that I wanted the film to be drenched in humidity depicting a texture, like it was shot underwater. The funny thing is that only he understands what that means and that’s how we communicate.
What was the camera setup like? For how long did you shoot for Miss Lovely and where did the post production happen?
We shot on Super 16 and combined it with 35mm. We mostly shot with available light on high-speed stock. I like films with a very strong visual palette, something that is unique. We did tests and worked on the look for a few months before we actually started shooting. Ultimately, we chose to go with a widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio.
We shot for 45 days over two schedules. The film was cut in Mumbai but the entire postproduction happened in Berlin since we had European co-producers who were involved with the finance.
How did you choose your locations and recreate the look of mid-80s?
Miss Lovely is an architectural film, which is my kind of Bombay film, in a way. We were trying to recreate a Bombay of the mid-1980s and the cinematic effect, which was prevalent during that time. I wanted the feel of quintessential Hindi cinema i.e. the villains by the pool and the cabaret etc. Though, it’s virtually impossible to recreate the 1980s Bombay since there’s almost nothing left. Forty per cent of the locations have been knocked down.
The party scene was shot at Naaz Cinema on Grant Road and the jail scenes were at the green rooms of Edward Cinema. The brothers work out of India Cine Lab at Kennedy Bridge and the cabaret takes place in Kitkat, which we had to restore for the film. Also, we shot at few hotels from Colaba to Yari Road where sometimes we got permission and often we didn’t.
The times were flash but also faded. We spent a lot of time dipping costumes into the tea and deteriorating them. I wouldn’t let anybody take a shower or wash off make-up, as I wanted the things to look lived in.
How did you go about the casting of this film? What was your essential brief to the actors and rehearsal process like?
I wanted faces that were unknown and didn’t remind you of some other film. I felt that the characters should be believable and look like they are actually from that world. In fact, many of the smaller roles have been played by the real people from the C grade industry. Though the main cast was very difficult to find. I had to hunt excessively to search the right face for Vicky Duggal, the elder brother in the film. He had to be dominating and rough, but also vulnerable and cowardly in some ways. Luckily, we discovered this amazing actor called Anil George in Delhi who had been doing street theater for many years and had never done a film.
For Sonu Duggal, I happened to chance upon Nawaz who had been doing minor roles for years and though he was talented yet nobody wanted to give him a proper role. He was angry, frustrated and very broken by the industry at that time. Likewise, Niharika who had shot two films that had been shelved was fed up completely. And therefore, they both got ready for something new. Miss Lovely was Nawaz’s first lead role.
I am also excited about the discovery of Zeena Bhatia who plays Poonam, a senior C grade star in the film. Also there’s another female actor named Menaka Lalwani who plays Nadia, a new girl that has just arrived on the scene. All these actors gave so much to this film and it’s a relief to have actors who are not afraid to do unconventional roles.
What kind of problems did you face with the censor and what cuts and compromises were made to get this film released?
We had to go through the censor board a couple of times because the film is not exactly a typical family entertainment. It’s quite candid and dark and we were asked to make a lot of cuts initially. However, finally after four reviews, we were allowed to keep most things except few nude shots that have been blurred. I am pretty happy with the outcome, as I never expected it.
What do you want your audiences to take away from Miss Lovely?
I think audiences in India are keen to watch new and unique cinema and they are not just content with the usual fare. People watch what they have access to watch, so I don’t hold them responsible for what they see. It’s the distribution system that makes it difficult for audiences to access anything different. But whenever somebody has genuinely tried to back a new kind of independent film, it has worked. It has opened up the space and changed expectations. My films are very different from these though as they are less commercial and more strange perhaps. In some ways, Miss Lovely is quite wild but I am excited to have it out there. I think even if it shifts perceptions about what an Indian film is capable of, I would consider it a success.
Please name few Indian films and filmmakers that you can relate to or admire the most?
My taste in Indian films is varied. I love some Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak films, but I am obsessed with the Malayali filmmaker G. Aravindan. At the same time I get into Mithun’s earlier films such as Disco Dancer, Karate, Boxer etc. I also really like B film directors like B. R. Ishara who made an amazing film about a traditional Indian housewife addicted to drugs called Naya Nasha. Also, Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-Ba-Dar (1986) was very exciting for me in the way it defies categorization. I like to explore things that surprise me and don’t just assume that certain films are “great” only because somebody is telling so. I don’t want to think of cinema as a dead thing. It has to be formally alive and engaging.