Star Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anil George, Niharika Singh
Director : Ashim Ahluwalia
The Indian Express ratings: ****
Films that try and capture murk and sleaze are usually hard to watch. Usually, there is a transfer of slime, and you feel like washing off the experience. ‘Miss Lovely’, Ashim Ahluwalia’s debut feature shows us the dark innards of the profitable porn-horror fringe-filmmaking that flourished in Bombay in the 80s, the men who ran it, the women who had to run with it. It is done with an unsparing eye, without a hint of exploitation. It makes no excuses for any of its characters, but it does tell us where they are coming from. It has no distracting schmaltz, but a great deal of empathy. Ahluwalia gives us marvelous atmosphere, terrific detailing, just the right grunge and grain in the characters and an unexpected emotional punch: this is a film I want to embrace.
When we first come upon the Duggal brothers, Vicky (Anil George) and Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), they are in a face-off, a pattern that will repeat through the film. The older Vicky is the more entrenched one, who understands the rules of the very dodgy games they play: Sonu is trapped, and keeps wanting to break free, especially when he encounters the beautiful Pinky (Niharika Singh). Sonu has done something foolish in order to make some money, Vicky is furious, but is impelled to save his younger brother’s skin. Because blood is thicker than water. But for how long can this go on?
Nawaz’s journey becomes ours, as he tries to side-step the tangles of this world of greedy businessmen whose depravity knows no limits, abandoned tin-sheds that become impromptu sets for ‘blue’ films, lusty agents who think nothing of ‘live auditions’, married women in their mangalsutras who are happy to show off their moves, and the quiet desperation of young girls who have nowhere to go but down.
Ahluwalia doesn’t dot his Is or cross his Ts. There is no obvious plot, but very smart plotting. He expects you to do some of the lifting, and if you are game, you are in for the sort of cinematic experience that is rare in Indian cinema. In a couple of places I found some props (like a plump bikini clad female carrying a tape-recorder rather obviously) shouting out, ‘look, look, we are the 80s’. But in practically every other part of the film, the set design is impeccably understated. The camera too takes an authorial position here, noting not just the dazzling colours and the lights and shades, but also letting us look at other cameras recording the bump-and-grind on makeshift beds, being looked upon by men with sweaty palms and leery smiles.
Nawazuddin’s tragic hero is the soul of this film, in turns mirroring the anguish and the dirt and the pain of ‘Miss Lovely’s unlovely, squalid world. Anil George does an excellent job, as does Niharika Singh. As do the other bit parts that come and go.
This is a film that unsettled me, and moved me. This is also a film I will savour for a long time.