Friday, March 1, 2013

Miss Lovely (India, 2012)

“Outlaw Cinema” is one of those terms we sometimes use to elevate the acts of film making and consumption to the romantic level of rebellion. From an audience standpoint, it allows us to feel that we’re totally sticking it to The Man while, in reality, we’re not in any way diverging from a role of passive spectatorship -- at least in those parts of the world where we have the luxury of spicing up innocuous pastimes with intimations of criminality. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, on the other hand, depicts an outlaw cinema of a much more literal type, one in which the risks taken are far more than aesthetic, and the dangers, for those participating, are potentially mortal in nature.

Ahluwalia originally set out to make a documentary about India’s ‘C’ grade movie industry, but ran into a stumbling block when none of his subjects would agree to appear on camera. Equipped with a wealth of research and firsthand experience, he then set out to make a narrative feature on the subject, casting professional actors in the leads and using some actual figures from the scene -- who apparently weren’t averse to showing themselves as long as it was in a fictionalized context -- as background and supporting players. For a time period, he chose the mid-to-late 80s, sort of a golden age for the ‘C’ movie industry before it was elbowed into irrelevance by the internet and the easy availability of Western pornography.

Miss Lovely opens with a luridly hued, period appropriate title sequence before plunging us right into a “boo” moment from a Ramsay Brothers’ style horror cheapie. In fact, anyone familiar with the work of the Ramsays will recognize the likely inspiration for Ahluwalia’s main characters: a pair of brothers who produce low budget fright films for India’s downscale urban and rural cinema circuit. It is not so much the content of the brothers’ horror films per se that counts, however, as much as those films’ role as Trojan horses for the pornographic reels that are later inserted into them once they’ve cleared the censor and made their way into the theaters. This last delicate operation is accomplished by making hand delivery of the smut footage to the individual theaters where the films are being shown, whereupon they are spooled into the picture as it’s screened.

Such grunt work normally falls to the younger of the brothers, Sonu, who is played by Peepli (Live)’s Nawazussin Siddiqui. Sensitive and shy, Sonu seems to be nearing a breaking point when we meet him, his eyes searching for whatever exit can be found. By contrast, his older brother Vicky (Anil George) is being driven by his ambitions ever deeper into the dark underbelly of the industry, to the point where his clashes with the gangsters who run the distribution end of the business are becoming increasingly perilous. When Sonu meets and falls for an aspiring actress named Pinky (beauty queen and spokesmodel Niharika Singh, making an impressive feature debut), he attempts to woo her with plans to make a legitimate feature, a romance he’s titled Miss Lovely. Unfortunately, Pinky has also caught the eye of Vicky, who attempts in turn to woo her toward the less wholesome type of screen immortality that is his to offer. Thus is set the stage for the exceedingly grim playing out of an archetypal rivalry.

Some reviewers of Miss Lovely have described it as an Indian answer to Boogie Nights -- which, while inaccurate, is understandable as an attempt to neatly quantify a film that is admittedly difficult to categorize. For one, it lacks the element of nostalgia found in that latter film. The authentic clips that are included to represent the brothers’ product certainly convey the cheesy allure of Indian trash horror, but are presented in a context that prevents them from being sentimentalized. At the same time, while the film makes fairly clear that the “C” industry was the mirror image of a repressed and repressive system of control, it resists any temptation to depict its practitioners as scrappy underdogs.

It has to be said, in fact, that, viewed outside the Indian censorship system’s claustrophobic standards of propriety, those filmmakers’ movies would be considered soft core at the very worst, yet they were held so far beneath contempt by polite Indian society as to effectively have no legal recourse on those occasions when they disappeared into the justice system. This aside, it would be difficult to make heroes out of the habitués of Sonu and Vicky’s world, for, as they’re depicted here, they’re simply too busy exploiting, swindling and betraying one another to present a united front. And by this, of course, I mean the men, the women in many cases being too deprived of agency -- and often the subjects of outright pimping and coercion -- for even such basic displays of venality.

Ahluwalia’s documentarian touches make Miss Lovely a plum for anyone with a fascination for Indian trash films -- be they the dime store fright fests of Harinam Singh or the hoochie coochie daku dramas of Kanti Shah. His camera puts us right inside the smoke-filled hot boxes in which these films were originally seen by catcalling working class male audiences -- and also, whether we like it or not, into the filthy hotel rooms in which their more illicit sequences were shot. At the same time, he swathes the film in all the murky stylization of an art-house noir, contrasting the base allure of the films’ subject efforts with a more sophisticated stratagem of cinematic seduction. To be sure, this isn’t Bollywood by any stretch of the imagination (the film is, in fact, having trouble finding release in Ahluwalia’s home country due to censorship problems), but, as both a work of art and of film history, it's essential viewing for anyone wanting a broad sketch of Indian cinema in all its wildly contradicting contours.


Anonymous said...

Just watched the trailer on YouTube. It looks pretty compelling. Too bad it only played for one day in SF. Hopefully it will make it to DVD sometime soon.

Todd said...

Hear hear. Given its warm reception on the festival circuit, I'd also keep a look out for it on services like Fandor.