Miss Lovely review: The sleazy, beautiful world of bad movies
Miss Lovely moves slowly, unravelling like real life. It demands the viewer read into silences, see the phantoms hidden by smoke and the cheap dazzle of measly successes and the menace lurking in smiles and embraces.
The 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso begins with a flashback. A film is being screened in an auditorium that’s empty but for a single priest. The priest isn’t interested in the film, but you realise the reason he’s there soon enough. Every time there's an on screen kiss, the priest rings a bell and the projectionist sticks a slip of paper to mark that point in the film. Later, the projectionist snips those objectionable, romantic bits from the film, whose edited version is shown to the people in the village.
It seems strange to recall Giuseppe Tornatore’s utterly sweet award-winning film while watching a film set in the ugly underbelly of Mumbai’s amateur porn and B-grade horror film industry, but Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely does unexpectedly resonate with Cinema Paradiso every now and then. Both are about an innocent young man who spends most of the film pining for a different life and the love of a beautiful young woman. Also, both start with bits of snipped film.
Except in Miss Lovely, the projectionist only wants the lewd bits and (given the priest in Cinema Paradiso was scandalised by mere lip locks), much more than a little bell would have been ringing if the priest saw the pornographic sections that the projectionist puts on for the audience in Miss Lovely.
There’s a tradition of cinema watching in India with which large sections of urban audiences aren’t familiar. For the price of one ticket, you get to see not one, but at least one and a half films. Here’s how it works. In the middle of Bhayanak Hawas (or some such horrifying, titillating title), a few scenes — usually pornographic — from an entirely unrelated film would be inserted. This sort of interruption didn’t upset the men watching Bhayanak Hawas. In fact, it’s for the interruption that they’ve bought these tickets. Miss Lovely is about the people who make up this cottage industry of tacky, cheap cinema.
Ahluwalia, whose last film was the haunting John and Jane, had originally planned to make a documentary on the B-grade film industry in India. However, he found too few willing to go on record and decided to turn towards fiction that would be filled with reality. And so he made Miss Lovely, a film that is richly detailed with not just props that seem to have been borrowed from actual homes, but people who seem to belong to the industry Ahluwalia is depicting in his film.
Miss Lovely is about Sonu Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his elder brother Vicky (Anil George). The two of them make films that are a sloppy mix of horror and pornography for sleazy distributors. Vicky is the ambitious one and also the one who makes the films. Sonu is essentially Vicky’s Man Friday, running errands that range from carrying crates of alcohol for Vicky’s parties to organising the women for his films. Surrounded though he may be vice and squalor, there’s a childlike innocence to Sonu, who dreams of directing a romantic film and is nice to everyone, from the midget manager Tiku to Poonam, Vicky’s lover and a porn star.
Trouble comes to the Duggal brothers on tiptoes. First, Vicky tries to bypass his producer-distributors and gets beaten up in the process. Then, Vicky finds a new actress for his films, a young woman called Nadia, who goes from good-girl midi skirt to bad-girl gold pantsuit in matter of a few scenes. Finally, Sonu meets Pinky (Niharika Singh), a struggling extra in the B-movie world.
The first time Sonu asks Pinky for her phone number, she hesitates. She lives with her uncle and he doesn’t approve of this film business, Pinky tells Sonu. Pinky’s sweet demureness is a stark contrast to the garish sexuality that oozes out of the other women in Sonu’s world. Sonu tells Pinky he’s a director and he wants to cast her as the star of the romantic film he’s going to make next. Cocooned in lies and daydreams, the two fall in love.
Of course, this languid state of affairs can’t last for very long. Vicky and Sonu’s world comes crashing down when Nadia is found dead and Vicky is named as a suspect. There’s a sense of a net closing in on Sonu as well as the people closest to him turn out to be very different from what he thought they were.
Although the plot follows Sonu, Vicky and Pinky, it’s the detailing of Miss Lovely that makes it a fascinating watch. Siddiqui, George and Singh do an excellent job of playing the desperate survivors that their characters are, but giving their credibility an essential sense of authenticity are the others around them. For instance, Tiku, the midget manager whose office in a chawl is filled with women who do "sexy" dances for him and fake Bruce Lees, deserves his own film. The supporting cast of Miss Lovely is weather-beaten and poufed just as you’d expect people in this sleazy industry to be. From the upholstery to the television sets and the radio that provides ironic commentary to the unfolding events of Miss Lovely, every detail is pitch perfect. KU Mohanan’s cinematography is gorgeous, lending a colourful melancholia to this grimy world.
Miss Lovely moves slowly, unravelling like real life. It demands the viewer read into silences, see the phantoms hidden by smoke and the cheap dazzle of measly successes and the menace lurking in smiles and embraces. The violence and degradation that characterise the films that Vicky and Sonu make, seeps into their lives subtly. The point at which Miss Lovely flounders is in its last chapter. Events suddenly hurtle into one another and the end feels strangely abrupt. Rather than a resolution, we’re left with questions and a lingering sense of unease about where Ahluwalia leaves both Sonu and us.
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