Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Miss Lovely: Melodrama lets down the execution



Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anil George, Niharika Singh
Director: Ashim Ahluwalia
Ashim Ahluwalia, whose documentary John and Jane won him critical acclaim, has gone a step further with Miss Lovely, his feature film which has been selected for the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Festival 2012.
This movie looks at the horror-porn industry of the 1980s and 1990s, the aching longing of its protagonists to get out of that gutter and move on to the life they dreamed of when they got into ‘filmmaking’, and the futility of such ambition.
Inspired by Ahluwalia’s research into a planned documentary on the subject, the film draws heavily from real incidents. In interviews, Ahuwalia spoke of witnessing the shooting of a sleaze horror film called Maut ka Chehra in 1998, when that C-grade industry was dying out.
That film was being made by ex-convicts in little apartments and hotels that charged by the hour. The actress said she preferred being a star in the C-grade film industry to being an extra in the A-grade industry. The gossip centred on a soft porn actress who had disappeared. Her body was recovered months later. The documentary wasn’t made, because no one was willing to go on record. But what Ahluwalia saw became raw material for his next film.
Miss Lovely has a wonderfully engaging start. A man with the tight clothes and wavy hair of a hero of the 1980s walks into a house that is clearly haunted. With an intelligent frown, he storms in anyway, and makes eye contact with the cobweb-layered painting of a beautiful woman. White hands grab at his throat, and a laughing banshee materialises and multiplies, bearing down on him from sundry corners of the building.
The reel ends, and the audience begins to hoot and boo. But in walks Sonu Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) bearing another reel – the single reel that would be shown to the late-night audience in small towns, of a woman heaving and panting as a man ravishes her. The audience begins to cheer.
We’re drawn into the lives of the Duggal brothers, Vicky (Anil George) and Sonu, who produce and direct C-grade films for low returns. Vicky tries to cut out some of the middlemen and climb the ladder himself. He is unsuccessful at first, but figures out a better route as the film progresses.
Sonu, something of a dim-witted runt, does the dirty work for Vicky. But he finds himself when he sees Pinky (Niharika Singh) on a train from Ajmer to Bombay. He falls in love at first sight, and several coincidences later, dreams of a life with his Miss Lovely – she will star in a real film that he will direct. Miss Lovely will not be one of those dirty pictures.
As their story unfolds, the film looks at several key issues – the exploitation of women in the industry, the despair that drives people to kill each other for the tiniest gains, the pessimistic cynicism that snuffs out dreams before they have even taken shape, the each-one-for-himself attitude that can drive one to abandon those closest to him to save his own skin, the betrayal that is a given among the small people in the big city.
It is supported by an able cast, mostly picked from theatre. Nawazuddin Siddiqui looks the part of Sonu, a departure from his usual angry-fierce character roles. The dialogue is so authentic one may easily forget this isn’t a documentary. The texture of the shots quite perfectly recreates the world of the 1980s, both in terms of appearance and atmosphere.
The real subject of the film is human emotion and ambition – when you’re looking for a way out of a murky world, it’s easy to fall in love with someone who appears to hold the key. Even so, the promise is so faint that a simple pragmatic statement can make it collapse.
What does it take to trust someone in a world this sordid? Does one trust oneself not to betray someone when all pretence of respectability is abandoned for the practical concern of making ends meet? Is there a place for goal-setting in an industry reeking of squalor and misery?
Miss Lovely asks all the right questions, and tells a poignant story. However, at some point, the film turns predictable, in the tradition of Bollywood cinema. It may be argued that the lives of these people are inspired by the industry they aspire to, but that’s not quite how the events take shape here.
The moment of reckoning in this film, where the concentrated anger at being disappointed and abandoned turns one of the characters on the other, is timed perfectly. What would you do if the person who has succeeded in disillusioning you (for your own good, of course) you gloats at having been right all along?
The let down in this film is that it could have been quite beautiful if the crucial segments had been handled without the melodrama. Most of the film is slow and muted, and the end jars in context, and not in a way that can complement by contrast.

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