Director Ashim Ahluwalia, it seemed, would trade his kingdom for a double espresso in his sixth-floor room at Hotel Hindusthan International on the afternoon of Friday the 10th. Besides being his wake-up buddy, the full-bodied flavour of the beans captures the dark nature of his Friday the 17th release –– Miss Lovely, an exploration of the Indian C-grade film industry. The arrival of the cup marked the start of the chat.
How did you communicate the visuals and script to your lead actors?
I wanted actors who nobody knew… were totally obscure. This is Nawaz’s (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) first lead role and in a sense a discovery of Nawaz. I wanted his character (Sonu Duggal) to be someone broken by the film industry; he was really frustrated and had a lot of pent-up anger. Nawaz was doing these bit roles and always felt that he was much better and deserved a lead role, which nobody was giving him. He had this slighted character. So, he was Sonu Duggal in real life. Similar with Niharika Singh. My idea was to have a Bollywood actress who had been failed by Bollywood. She had done two-three films that didn’t release. They were already very frustrated with the industry.
What are your memories of our C-grade film industry?
Obviously as a schoolboy I had seen some of those films. In the 1980s it was standard practice for many — while growing up — to see nude scenes at cheap theatres. I went to film school in the US and then came back to Bombay in early 2000s. I noticed some of these posters and found it interesting that these films were still being made. Meanwhile, I felt alienated from the Bollywood industry. There was no connect and I didn’t have a space. I wondered if this space could be another universe.
So I started on a documentary on the C-grade film industry, which became a one-and-a-half-year love affair with these characters and people. But, in short, none of these people wanted to appear on camera and the whole thing fell apart. By the end of it, I spent MacMohan’s birthday at Poonam Dasgupta’s house! She was the doyen of the C-grade world in the late 1980s and early 90s. It (the documentary) became research not just for characters but textures, space and atmosphere.
Did the sexuality in these films ever find its way, however small, into mainstream Bollywood?
Not really. Miss Lovely — and the world it engages — is sort of a parallel universe, which, in a way, has room for me. Though the film is set in the Hindi film industry, it really doesn’t engage Bollywood at all. It’s really about this other world because their rules are different.
Did your perception of the C-grade industry change with the documentary?
My perception was probably that the documentary would be comic, funny and, in a way, a parody. For people who don’t engage with such cinema, it would be the easiest way to engage with it… like ‘oh how ridiculous it is, how tacky it is’. But when I spent time with people, I thought that wasn’t worth talking about. Because even the mainstream is tacky. Only they have more money, so it’s another kind of tack. The bottomline really is that I started having compassion for these characters. I started seeing them as very broken, complex….
As this senior actress Sapna said: “I would rather be a queen in my world than be standing behind Aishwarya in hers.” They created sort of a parallel universe of misfits and in a way people who had lost out; created a world that was very strong….
That gave me a lot of confidence in what I was doing as an independent filmmaker. These guys were also independent filmmakers, doing their own thing and they really didn’t give a shit about anything else. That they had so much confidence in the space was a revelation.
|Nawaz’s first kiss. Ever! : I didn’t know Niharika at all. Mera world bilkul alag tha and Niharika ka alag tha. She was from the fashion world and I am from the theatre world. When I saw her the first time on set I was a little nervous because woh bahut khubsoorat hai. And she is Miss India (Earth). But she is an easy-going actress. Aur unka performance bahut honest hai film mein. Her performance won’t irritate you.... As far as kissing goes, main thoda cigarette peeta hoon. For the scene I was asking somebody for a mouth freshener. Nobody had one. So she offered hers! Mera real life ka bhi pehla lip kiss tha! Before this, it was about kissing a girl on the cheeks. Gaon ke log... I didn’t have any idea
— NAWAZUDDIN SIDDIQUI
Picture: Pabitra Das
Were you ever in danger while dealing with people from that industry?
Obviously I was seen as this ‘English-type’… I was not seen as an Adarsh Nagar local. Initially, people obviously asked me for money and promised me contacts. Very quickly I realised that you don’t give anyone money because once you came back, the office had shutdown or didn’t exist! I was perpetually conned for the first month. Once I got in and created a relationship with people, they became comfortable talking about what they did. Only when I wanted to put people on video, they said no. I was insistent. And then I got this hostile response and people stopped taking calls. Perhaps they thought it was an expose. An actress I had been talking to as part of the process, one evening called in a very different mode, in this seductive mode. She called and said: “I am in this hotel. Why don’t you come and have drinks with me.” I could actually imagine her sitting with two people in the room, forcing her to make that call. I don’t know if I was paranoid but I definitely started feeling that I was this potentially extort-able guy. It started getting scary.
Do we still have a C-grade film industry?
It had sort of died when I was trying to make this documentary… in early 2000s. The Internet had started to come in and VCDs killed it because pornography was widely available. The use-value of pornography diminished.... Celluloid died.
Miss Lovely became about the end of a certain era. When the two brothers (Sonu and Vicky, played by Nawaz and Anil George) start out, they are actually making monster movies. There is narrative, crew, cast and by the end they were shooting straight-to-video porn. It’s actually about the end of celluloid and the beginning of digital.
Will the DVD of the movie have extras?
There are some great extras and also behind the scenes, which is very interesting because we shot at some dubious one-hour hotels where prostitution was happening at the same time as our shoot. So, the shoot was very crazy. Because there were these people in ’80s costumes wandering around notorious locations, pretending everything was normal. And I had told them (owners of these shady places) that we were shooting a re-enactment for a documentary. It was not a very convincing argument but they made some money and let us into those spaces.
Were these the same places you visited to make the documentary?
These spaces came because I met people there when I was making this documentary. I have seen the back rooms and basements of cinemas, cabaret halls that were defunct.... We dug out some incredible locations for the film. Almost half of those have already been knocked down. Calcutta was actually one of the first places I thought I would shoot. But then we found spaces in Mumbai that worked.
Peter Cat is a perfect example; it’s one of my favourite restaurants in India. So incredibly cinematic, it seems like it was made for a noir film. And I didn’t want to create that because if you try and make a Peter Cat set, it would look like a movie. I needed spaces to look completely real. Bengalis are really historical unlike Bombay people who have no engagement with history; they actually despise history and like to knock things down and deface them. In Cal, you can always find the guy who can bring you the right curtains and still cares about the way the upholstery used to be done. I felt Cal was the easiest place to recreate the Bombay of the ’80s. So I started looking for locations. Finally we found spaces in Bombay and it was economical. This was around 2008-09.
Finally, any C-grade films you remember from childhood?
Pyaasa Shaitan, Private Life… there are so many. When I watched them as a boy it was just random stuff. You just remember things like a naked woman comes in 10 minutes into the film. This was the way most map such films. Now I have a very academic relation to such films, I’ve become an accidental encyclopaedia of gutter cinema! I know Ajay Agarwal was Dracula… I kind of know the space.