Monday, February 25, 2013

SFFS’s Artist-in-Residence Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely

Technically, it is illegal to exhibit films that are not certified by India’s so-called censorship board.  Of course, it happens anyway.  For so-called “C-Grade” filmmakers and performers, going legit is a tricky proposition, but Bollywood dreams die hard in San Francisco Film Society Artist-in-Residence Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (trailer here).  In addition to the Society’s educational outreach programs for local schools and aspiring filmmakers, Ahluwalia will attend a screening of Miss Lovely and participate in a special artist talk, both of which should be fascinating, because this is a film guaranteed to inspire questions, starting with just how much of his misadventures in underground filmmaking are based on truth.

The Duggal Brothers specialize in grinding out horror-themed sex features for the seamy C-Grade circuit.  Vicky is a born user who calls the shots, while Sonu is sensitive and passive by nature.  They specialize in production, leaving distribution to their dodgy associates.  When Vicky gets ideas about vertical integration, it causes considerable difficulties.  However, personal problems will be the brothers’ ultimate undoing.

Sonu is completely enamored with Pinky, a girl from a strictly traditional family, who harbors aspirations of Bollywood stardom.  The quiet Duggal Brother is determined to finance and direct a mainstream star vehicle for her, to be titled Miss Lovely.  He is even willing to use his brother’s money to do so.  Fraternal ties are frayed and secrets are revealed, as the illicit combination of sex and money inevitably leads to tragedy.

Originally Ahluwalia intended to make a documentary about the scandalous C-Grade film industry, but reconceived Miss Lovely as a narrative feature out of necessity.  He definitely immerses viewers in the sleazy, dangerous vice world.  For the most part, he deliberately eschews the hallmarks Bollywood filmmaking.  Nonetheless, the frequently funky soundtrack goes down smooth.

Hardly a glamorization of C-Grade films, Ahluwalia portrays the Duggal’s enterprise as grubby, exploitative, and thoroughly dominated by underworld types.  It is far more a cautionary tale than a Hindi Boogie Nights.  Things definitely come to grief pretty darn fast.  Yet, somehow the faux cheesy scenes of the Duggals’ naughty horror movies will appeal to a lot of cult viewers’ inner Tarantinos.  Indeed, production and costume designer Tabasheer Zutshi’s team does spot-on work fully recreating this lurid environment on-screen.

Most importantly, this is clearly a milieu Ahluwalia fully understands.  Straddling genres, he toys with crime story elements, but essentially tells a Cain and Abel tale, skewering India’s celebrity-obsessed culture and sexual hypocrisy along the way.  Stylistically, he spans the gamut from trippily disorienting to in-your-face naturalism.  This is kitchen-sink filmmaking at its most relentlessly indie.

Anil George’s Vicky Duggal is a compulsively watchable, almost mesmeric pseudo-villain.  Nearly unrecognizable from Gangs of Wasseypur, Nawazuddin Siddiqui revels in cringy pathos as poor Sonu. Frankly, much of the supporting cast-members are essentially hanging on for dear life, but that sort of works given the circumstances.

Big, bold, and fearless, Miss Lovely approximates the sweep and scale of the Bollywood it rejects.  Part expose and part fall-from-grace epic, Miss Lovely is highly recommended for connoisseurs of Indian art cinema and those who simply love films about filmmaking (in all its ragged forms).  It screens at the New Peoples Cinema in San Francisco this Thursday (2/28), with Ahluwalia’s Artist Talk to follow next Tuesday (3/5) at FilmHouse, as part of his residency now underway with the San Francisco Film Society.