Interview: Ashim Ahluwalia (Director- ‘Miss Lovely’)

Set in the lower depths of Bombay’s “C” grade film industry, ‘Miss Lovely‘ follows the devastating story of two brothers who produce sex horror films in the mid-1980s. A sordid tale of betrayal and doomed love, the film dives into the lower depths of the Bollywood underground, an audacious cinema with baroque cinemascope compositions, lurid art direction, wild background soundtracks, and gut-wrenching melodrama.

Anticipating the NYC run of ‘Miss Lovely‘ at Cinema Village, as well as the film’s national expansion to heaters around the country, David Teich sat down with the film’s Director Ashim Ahluwalia for an extended conversation about the history of Indian pornography, Mumbai gang activity, Bollywood’s treatment of its female representatives and much more.

Find Tickts & More Information to ‘Miss Lovely’ at Cinema VillageHERE

Tell me a bit about the history of pornographic filmmaking in India.
Ashim Ahluwalia: Pornography of any sort is illegal in India. There’s no adult movie industry. Mainstream cinema barely even has kissing. So in the ‘80s [when “Miss Lovely” takes Place], these movies were made completely illegally. [Filmmakers] would shoot a horror film or something in four days or so. But it was just an excuse to add extra reels of sex that were not sent to the censors. So they would show these horror films that had been sent to the censors, and at the movie theater, at night, some guy on a bicycle would come with reels of the pornography that they had shot. That stuff would then get directly interspersed in the movie theater. So suddenly people would be watching eleven-minute reels of sex. And to this day, if you get busted shooting or in any way being involved with pornographic film—and pornography could include just a nude shot—it’s three years minimum jail time, with no bail.

Is it illegal to consume pornography?
No, actually. An audience-member would probably have to spend a night in jail or something, and then be released the next day.

Miss_Lovely_02Is there a kind of general cultural repression in India, or is this just coming from the lawmakers?
It’s cultural repression. It’s a very hypocritical society. Nobody talks about sex. Although now, because this film was released in India, everyone’s talking about sex and sleaze. So it’s kind of opened up. “Miss Lovely” went to [the] Cannes and Toronto [Film Festivals,] and somehow that gave it this sort of validity, so now people can talk about it.

Was it difficult to get the film released?
Yeah, it took me a year. When I first submitted it to the censors, they asked for 157 cuts. And I didn’t even have 157 nude shots to cut. But they wanted to cut all kinds of stuff, because in India, censorship is not just nudity. It can just be the intent to corrupt. They had problems with the depiction of the two brothers, and certain scenes. So I had to keep going back and keep resubmitting it to the censor process, saying, “Oh, but the film was in Cannes, it was in Rotterdam, it was in Toronto, blah blah blah, look at this great international press.”  And then they would be like, “Okay, you can drop these cuts,” but then it would still be 110 cuts. So we really just worked the process to the point where they almost cut nothing. In the end they only blurred the nude shots, and cut one scene, and the film went out like that. That was a huge shift in Indian censorship. And now younger filmmakers are saying, “Thank you so much for getting this film out. Because now we can use this as an example and say, ‘Hey, that was out, so my film should go out too.’” It shifted the cultural landscape a little bit.

Do you think that criminalizing these kinds of movies just creates more criminal elements, such as the gang involvement portrayed in the film?
Yeah, it does. If you make it a commodity that everybody has to fight to get, it’s always going to be worse. But then, when you decriminalize it, it becomes boring, so it’s not such an interesting subject for a movie. [Laughs.] I mean, anything you block, whether it’s this, or drugs, or something else, it just takes on greater, almost mystical value. Because it’s the thing that you’re not allowed to see, so therefore you just want to see it more. If it was just available, you’d get bored in a minute.

Miss_Lovely_01You tried to make a documentary about pornographic filmmakers in India a few years back, but you couldn’t get enough people to agree to speak openly. What did you learn during that process that you were able to bring to “Miss Lovely?”
Yeah, I spent a year and a half hanging out with a lot of the directors and actresses and actors in the C-Grade industry. And there’s a reason it’s called C and not B. B movies are the legitimate movies that just don’t have budgets. But a C movie is a movie that’s made with the sole intent of including the sexual stuff. And I was really keen to check that space out. I got lots of stories and material. But then I came back to these guys later and said, ”Hey, what you told me, can I put that on tape?” And they would just say, “No, are you crazy? I’ll go to jail. There’s no way that I’m going to be on camera.” So I had all of these stories, all of this gossip, but nobody wanted to be on camera, so I couldn’t make a documentary. So I took all that material a couple years later, and I put these anecdotes together. And I set the film back in the mid-‘80s to kind of protect the individuals who told me those stories. So yeah, it all came out of that documentary. And the funny thing is, I went back to all the people who refused to give me interviews and said “Hey, would you play a character in this movie?” And they were like, “Yeah, why not?” So a lot of the background characters, the actresses, a lot of the producers and stuff, are real people [from that documentary]. And the movies that the brothers in the film make are all real C-grade sex films from the ‘80s that I found and restored.

What fascinated you about this subject matter in the first place?
Unfortunately, I think that in India, and in most parts of the world, you have a very clear gap between arthouse cinema and commercial cinema. And I just felt like the commercial cinema was not very interesting, and the arthouse stuff was taking itself too seriously: It wasn’t engaging with popular ideas. I went to Bard College here in the U.S., and I thought a lot about language, and form, and ideas of film. And then when I went back to India, I looked at these C-grade movies and said, you know, this stuff, in a weird way, is that middle ground between independent arthouse stuff and popular culture. The films are made so badly—they’re crappy films—but there’s a certain spirit in which they’re made. Like, they would just use a stock shot because they didn’t have the real shot. Or the actor would be unavailable one day, so they would just use another actor to play the same character. And I thought, “Wow, these are accidentally experimental. They’re made with this wild anarchic spirit. I relate to this world. If there was a third space that was not mainstream Bollywood, and not state-sanctioned arthouse, this would be it.”

Miss_Lovely_03I take it you don’t think there’s enough experimental film in India.
I don’t think there’s enough experimental film in the world. I just think that everyone’s really safe. You often have to be, because it’s really hard to get money.

You did an interview during the 2012 Toronto Film Festival in which you said that too many Indian movies don’t actually reflect Indian culture. “Miss Lovely” is seemingly about a very small subset of Indians, yet would you say that it’s really about Indian culture more broadly?
Yeah, it’s about Indians’ relationship to their own sexuality, and to their own self-image of what is permissible. And it’s also about a certain kind of very dogmatic, quite scary hypocrisy that would treat somebody who makes a movie on par with someone who’s killed someone. That’s quite big. It’s a fascinating idea, that you can be a criminal just by being a filmmaker. Its just sort of mind-blowing in this day and age.

What drew you to the characters of Sonu and Vicky, specifically? Why brothers?
Historically—not just in India, but also in the States, if you look at the Mitchell brothers—there have always been brothers making sex movies. And the reason is that when you’re making illegal films, you trust the person that’s closest to you, who’s not going to take the money and run. And Indian movies traditionally have all been about family. So I thought it would be really interesting to make a movie about brothers, because ‘80s Indian mainstream Bollywood was almost always about brothers. And there would always be one brother who was the bad brother, who was the criminal, and one who was the cop. And they’d be pitted against each other, and then eventually, by the end, they would come together. And the bad guy would decide to change, and be absolved. So I thought it would be interesting to do the opposite, where the two brothers are together, and then they come apart.

When you were making your documentary, did you find that there were a lot of people in that world who, like Sonu, seemed a little bit out of place, and were just there because they didn’t know what else to do with their lives?
Yeah. Lots.

Miss_Lovely_05Why not tell the story not through Vicky, who may be more representative of the people who actually run that industry? Why did you decide to tell it through Sonu, who may be more innocent in his way?
I don’t know if he’s innocent as much as he’s ambitious. He feels he’s better than that space. And I relate to the idea of being trapped. I’ve had shit jobs I didn’t want to do. I relate to characters who feel claustrophobically stuck in an economic situation, and have dreams of doing something else. I relate to the idea of wanting to escape, and trying to do whatever you can to get out.

What does the Pinky character bring to the film?
Pinky, for me, is the most interesting character in the film. I met a lot of actresses when I was trying to make this movie who would say, “My name is so-and-so, and I just got to Bombay last month, and now I’m working here.” And then two years later I might meet the same actress, and she’d say, “My name is so-and-so”—and they would use a different name, and they’d still be saying, “I just got here last month.” And I thought that was very interesting. There are people whose histories are completely fictitious. And they need to be, because these people are struggling—so they’re constantly changing who they are, and what performance and what role they’re trying to play, in order to be able to survive in this space. So I thought of Pinky as a kind of shape-shifting character, who is always performing, and you can never really of penetrate what she is. And Sonu, being a very Indian man, assumes that her innocence is something he can protect and save and, in a way, explore/exploit. And of course he’s way too slow to understand that she’s far beyond him in the survival game, and she’s already working the system. I like the idea that he thinks he’s going to save her, and he’s going to help her, when he can’t.

In general, how does this industry treat women?
Well, it comes down to the longstanding question of whether women anywhere who are used to sexuality are exploited, or whether they’re aware of their own involvement in the production of these images. It’s a question that’s difficult to answer, because there are so many layers to the issue. On the one hand, a lot of the women in this industry definitely are exploited. And on the other hand, a lot of the women are very empowered because the films are women-centric.  Within that space, they’re treated like stars, like actresses that have a lot of value—whereas in the mainstream industry, women get paid half or less than male stars, and they’re almost never in lead roles.

Are there any female characters in your film who strike you as particularly empowered?
You can see that empowerment in the character Poonam, the older actress that’s with Vicky. She’s not gonna let any man run over her. I think that’s one of the reasons the censors had a problem with the film—the depiction of Indian women as being strong, and, in a way, way beyond the scope of what men can provide for them. They’re the ones who actually get out in the end. For the men, it’s a mess.

Miss_Lovely_06Have some audiences had trouble appreciating the film, given how unconventional it is in certain ways?
It’s a polarizing movie, because on the one hand, if you come from a more mainstream sensibility, you want the film to resolve in more conventional ways–you need to have the story spelled out. But if you’re dealing with more of a cinephile audience that’s watched lots of different kinds of films, and they’re more open to formally challenging movies, then they really love it, because it doesn’t fulfill certain things, and pushes boundaries. It actually takes you somewhere else. It doesn’t just become a two-brothers-and-a-woman noir thriller that resolves in the usual way. It opens up other ways of thinking.

Why do you prefer a style of filmmaking where things are left hanging, and not everything is clearly resolved?
Because I think that’s more like life. The best films I’ve seen, and books I’ve read—the ones that have left an impression—I sometimes didn’t even like when I first experienced them. But they have stayed with me through my life. And things where everything is perfectly wrapped up never stay with me beyond a day.  Because they resolve in a way that is not real. They package and complete themselves, and therefore I can process them and exit them from my mind…I could watch a film like that and be like, “That’s really well made, it’s really tight.” But if you ask me a week later what it was about, I wouldn’t even remember.

Is there any country or region whose cinema you find yourself particularly drawn to?
Asian cinema is definitely a space I find myself very drawn to, because it doesn’t flag off what the film is before I watch.  With European arthouse stuff, you know what you’re going to get into, and it never strays from that. But when you watch a Japanese or a Korean film, you think you’re watching a thriller, but it becomes something else. Or you think you’re watching a poetic film about a woman’s everyday banal life, and it becomes really extreme. I like having the rug pulled from under my feet and being led somewhere I didn’t expect to go. I think that’s the power of what film can do. Otherwise, it’s like watching a film on an airplane. You know what you’re gonna get. You’re just sort of passing the time.

What does it mean to you to have secured American distribution?
I think it’s amazing, especially considering the current state of American cinema. There’s very little international film here. And there’s very little challenging film, even in the arthouse spaces. I’m very lucky.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by David Teich

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