Miss Lovely review: Fascinating look at desi pulp film industry
Some will appreciate Miss Lovely for its experimental arthouse style. Others will hate the film and call it a slow, story-less and pointless exercise in indulgence.
Miss Lovely opens with a man in an 80s’ Ramsay-esque movie, wandering around a dark haunted house with a candle in his hand. He is suddenly grabbed by a sari-clad female ghost. Later, we’re plunged into a film set where a heaving, semi naked woman is attacked by an overtly masculine monster. The director, who is off camera, pinches the woman’s thighs to make her scream. This scene is projected on the screen of a seedy theatre where a pervy old man sits and smiles lasciviously as the woman suggestively moans while being assaulted by the monster. Using montages like these, director Ashim Ahluwalia beautifully demonstrates how enormous an impact horror filmmakers like the Ramsays, Harinam Singh, Gyanendra Chowdhary and their ilk had on India’s B-movie industry and the psyche of desi film buffs.
Some will appreciate Miss Lovely for its experimental arthouse style. Others will hate the film and call it a slow, story-less and pointless exercise in indulgence. But for most desi D-grade horror fans, like me, it’s fascinating to see (and hear) how low budget Hindi horror movies were made in the 80s and to delve into the unglamorous world of their production. What you don’t expect is the moody rumination on loneliness, alienation, and desperation that Miss Lovely offers. It’s not the kind of film you’d watch every week but it’s impossible not to be mesmerised by its audacity.
The film follows a typical lower middle class bloke Sonu Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who arrives in Bombay and finds some footing when his B-grade filmmaker brother Vicky (Anil George) offers him work in his cinema. A young and innocent girl named Pinky (Niharika Singh) shows up and Sonu is so besotted by her that he lies to her about being a filmmaker with the intention of turning her into a star. Things get ugly and Sonu gets embroiled in the murky underbelly of the B-movie industry, cops, shady gangster film producers and his desperate brother.
Technically, this is a plot that should make me giddy with delight and transform the very face of ‘Bollywood’. But Miss Lovely is a rare movie that is simultaneously terrific and frustrating, because director Ahluwalia just doesn’t expand his plot. The story only kicks in the second half and just when it is about to mature into something truly great, Ahluwalia pulls the rug from under your feet and just ends the story, not the film, which continues with a long and indulgent existential slog through the eyes of Sonu. There are intentionally languid still shots of staircases, houses, foliage, telephones and buildings. The effect is jarring because it feels like Ahluwalia is deliberately blocking a good story from being told in order to stock up on ‘film festival indulgence’. It’s also maddening because there was clearly so much effort put in every other aspect of the film.
You can’t even credit the film to be a character driven, rather than a plot driven piece. The screenplay reveals absolutely nothing about Sonu’s life before his arrival in Bombay and doesn’t provide much for him to do after the city clobbers him to near death. There is a brilliant dramatic contortion towards the finale but by this point the fundamental problem of the film not having a meaty story prevents it from elevating to the masterpiece level that it could so easily have reached. It’s a sad but solid reminder that without a good story, no film can be great; no matter how brilliantly acted, directed and shot it may be.
Despite its drawbacks, there’s plenty of dark and wonderful stuff within Miss Lovely. The atmosphere in the film is both intoxicating and stifling. The moody lighting and ambient sound design render a hypnotic feel to the film. The detailing is ridiculously good – all of the stuff from 80s is omnipresent, from the Weston C90 cassettes to the Mirc television sets, ancient projectors and reels, polka-dot clothing and yellow Yezdis. There is even a shot of Bombay traffic in which all the cars are from that era – how Ahluwalia pulled that shot off is a mystery. Most importantly, Ahluwalia doesn’t make the sets too showy. It’s just enough detail to add to the film’s realism.
As a long-time lover of horror and B-cinema, I found a ton of things to admire in Miss Lovely, like Ahluwalia’s ability to create an oppressively dreadful yet hilarious setting. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes a B-movie producer - a dwarf who sits in a grungy office with walls covered in smutty photos - is approached by a wannabe actress to star in an adult movie. She hands him her photographs and says ‘Mai sexy dance accha kar leti hu’ and starts gyrating, and the producer points out to Sonu how busy he is.
The ‘filmmaking’ scenes, like the one with the 'African’ jungle dance, are amusing. The sets are filled with bizarre, scummy, pulpy people you never expect to meet in your life. These are the rodents of the film industry and Ahluwalia presents them to you with glee. Hilariously, the B-movies being filmed in the film sometimes feel more real than the one we’re actually watching.
The casting and performances are flawless. Siddiqui is yet again excellent – he switches from good natured and innocent to helpless, desperate and violent without missing a beat. Whoever discovered Anil George deserves a trophy because he’s a hell of a dramatic actor. Watch him in the scenes where he verbally spars with Siddiqui and you’ll know Vijay Raaz and Deepak Dobriyal have a competitor. Newcomer Niharika Singh is icily mysterious (not to mention gorgeous). The junior artistes are all wonderful in their tiny roles.
Miss Lovely breaks a lot of Bollywood rules. You can bristle at its indulgences but, I'll still root for a movie that fiddles with the rules over an easy commercial one. Especially if it has a climax that features blood and a Nazia Hassan song.
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