The Shady Film Guide to Bombay

Director Ashim Ahluwalia’s debut film, Miss Lovely, maps the quirky but forgotten locales of the 1980s C-grade film industry in Mumba.

Updated: January 27, 2014 3:05 pm

The Duggal brothers, purveyors of C-grade entertainment, are going through a rough patch when they find an unexpected benefactor in an influential producer-distributor. They decide to scale up their new film, from sex-horror to semi-porn, and they call it Beauty Parlour. They organise a preview for potential distributors. In a darkened theatre, where the floral ceiling glints dark-red, a group of rowdy men, drinks, smokes and hoots as they watch the film.

This scene from Miss Lovely captures the spirit of the C-grade film industry of the 1980s — flourishing at that time, yet degenerative at its core. To shoot the scene, Ashim Ahluwalia chose one of Mumbai’s better-hidden secrets, the preview theatre of Liberty cinema at Fort, with its outlandish décor and kitschy aesthetic.

In 1947, when it opened, Liberty was ahead of its time. It had comfortable reclining chairs, holders for ashtrays and alcohol glasses, and lights that gradually faded before a screening. “The flower motifs etched on the ceiling glow in the dark upon use of a special light,” says Ahluwalia. Ironic, then — and just one of the many bits in this self-aware film that is acutely conscious of the many layers of meaning in its settings — that the space used for projecting the soft-porn Beauty Parlour also plays host to the Central Board of Film Certification for censor screenings.

Ahluwalia’s directorial debut is a poignant look at the deterioration of the celluloid era through the lives of those who walked on the fringes of the mainstream film industry. A large part of this story is the world he creates — from one-hour hotels to seedy bars and rooms in dilapidated buildings that serve as film casting agencies. Unwilling to recreate these places on set, Ahluwalia and his team scoured the city to find locations that not only set the film’s mood, but are Mumbai landmarks in their own right.

“Since the film addresses the end of celluloid, I wanted Miss Lovely to become a document of places that have been connected to that era before they are knocked down by real estate biggies,” he explains. So the team picked iconic places, such as Dadar’s Hindmata Cinema, Naaz in Grant Road and Edward Talkies in Dhobitalao, in addition to Liberty.

In doing so, sometimes the team stumbled upon lesser-known facts about these locations. For instance, the iconic Watson Hotel at Kala Ghoda — the first place in India to screen the Lumière Brothers’ Cinematographe invention in 1896 — had a glass capsule lift at one time which collapsed. “But no one’s bothered to pick up the glass pieces; instead a heap of garbage sits atop it,” the director says. Then, the existence of a room, well below the screen stage at Edward Talkies, which served as entry and exit points for artistes in the early 1900s when it was a performance theatre, or the two tiny green rooms at the back.

Many of these spaces, however, don’t appear in their original form in the film. So Naaz, with its grand chandeliers, has been transformed into a nightclub, whereas Edward’s green rooms and the space below the stage have been shot as a jail cell and police station, respectively. Parts of New Great Eastern Spinning and Weaving Company mill at Byculla were shown as a hospital.

Although the film is set in Mumbai’s suburbs — where the C-grade industry flourished in the ’70s — most of it is shot in south Mumbai. Walking us through some of these locations, Ahluwalia points out that this “plush” part of the city is also one of its poorest. “Poverty preserves history, because the owners lack the funds to renovate a place,” he says, as we walk into Kit Kat, one of the oldest bars in Marine Lines.

With wooden panels, steel rods holding up the shaky stairwell to the mezzanine, a cabaret stage in one corner, a defunct fountain next to it with troughs running through the restaurant, Kit Kat is a place stuck in a time warp. The view from its windows, however, is beautiful. Overlooking Metro Cinema on one side and the Edwardian Framjee Cowasjee Institute Hall on the other, it’s the vista that Ahluwalia captured in a scene where Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character Sonu takes Niharika Singh’s Pinky to a cabaret restaurant to impress her.

“The owners of the bar, which has been around since the mid-1900s, were reluctant to allow us to shoot here. We struck a deal with them; to partly renovate the place in exchange for permission,” the director recounts. The bamboo print wallpaper and the blue-and-white curtains that the team put up appear in sync with the grungy Kit Kat.

Scoring permissions for shooting in West End Hotel, however, proved to be the toughest. The hotel, built in 1947, was once the cool hangout of south Bombay. Many filmmakers, including Chetan Anand and Raj Kapoor, have sought permissions to shoot at the Marine Lines hotel and failed. Ahluwalia is proud that Miss Lovely is the first film to be shot here. Only a look at this now-obscure hotel can reveal why the director didn’t want to compromise on the location, although the scene lasted all of 30 seconds.

The décor, at first glance, appears regular, like that of any other hotel that has seen better days. But a walk towards the brass signboard that reads Chez Nous leads up to a passage with two old-school telephone booths on one side and a glass wall with red leather panelling on the other. The arched doorway opens into a bar that could be a gangster’s haunt in a noir film. Chez Nous is a curved space, its walls lined with grey felt, with spring sofas to match. “It was designed by a Russian architect who visited India in the late 40s,” says Ahluwalia, adding that cinematographer KU Mohanan had a tough time lighting this place up due to its shape. “Overdoing it would have taken away from its vibe.”

To make the world these characters inhabit more authentic, the crew of Miss Lovely had to look beyond these relics of Mumbai’s glorious past. Apartments in the old buildings of Byculla, Mazgaon, Cotton Green and Reay Road, with their peeling paint and crumbling structures, gave the film the true texture of decay — an undercurrent that flows throughout the narrative.

An abandoned mill in Daarukhana near the docks, now used as godown, became the venue for the filming of a porn movie by the Duggal brothers. And when the actress, busted by cops, ran across the length of the mill wrapped only in a bedsheet as part of a scene, the workers in the neighbourhood gathered around, unsure whether the raid was for real or being faked.

Many of the locations where Miss Lovely was shot nearly three years ago have since succumbed to the city’s hunger for real estate space. Among them is Indian Cine Laboratory. A processing lab owned by Ardeshir Irani in the early 1900s, it is where hundreds of films were colour corrected, including Alam Ara, India’s first film with sound. Numerous film cans and old processing machines lay around in rooms where paint had become indistinguishable from mould. “With the old-style editing table, the history of Indian cinema lying in discarded film cans, it worked perfectly as the Duggal brothers’ office,” says the 41-year-old director.

The Laboratory has now made way for a playschool. Orange, red and yellow have replaced the scraggy white-turned-grey of the walls, the cement flooring lies buried under wood panels. Some parts of the old space, however, still remain — the office, the first floor balcony overlooking several tiled roofs, and an anteroom with an old colour correction machine. Also lying around are dishes that once held the chemicals used to bring the images imprinted on celluloid to life on the silver screen.

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