Documaker Ashim Ahluwalia (“John & Jane”) makes an impressive transition to features with “Miss Lovely,” an atmospheric tragedy set in the sordid world of Bombay’s exploitation-film industry during the late 1980s. There, on the wrong side of the law, labor the purveyors of cheap titillation for audiences that, in the words of one financier, “want to see naked girls, pretty and shameless.” Something new in Indian filmmaking, neither Bollywood nor traditional art cinema, the pic provides provides a unique, immersive experience that will need kudos and critical support to boost international arthouse sales.
Like “Boogie Nights,” “Miss Lovely” offers a visually stunning evocation of a disreputable subculture, although it lacks that pic’s rooting dramatic interest. Spanning the years 1986-92, a time of change for the gutter-film business and the characters, the story centers on brothers and unequal partners in crime Vicky (Anil George, intense) and Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, vague), small-time producers of cheap sex-and-horror pics cranked out in malodorous hotel rooms and deserted warehouses.
Unscrupulous, ambitious Vicky is the brains of the outfit, exploiting dimwitted Sonu, a series of actress-wannabe girl friends and the rest of his crew. Yet, to Vicky’s fury, he’s just a low man on the totem pole. The real money goes to the crime syndicates controlling distribution of the films to small towns all over India.
In between shoots, cast and crew hang out in sleazy hotels and smoke-filled dives where plentiful drink stokes baser instincts and violence is apt to break out at any moment. When Vicky throws over aging alcoholic diva Poonam (Zeena Bhatia) for sexy babe Nadia (Menaka Lalwani) and makes her his new star, it’s just one of the film’s many betrayals.
Sonu, the closest thing to a sympathetic character here, becomes increasingly resentful of Vicky’s high-handed ways. When Sonu meets Pinky (Niharika Singh), a struggling actress, he becomes obsessed with directing her in a film of his own, a romance to be called “Miss Lovely.” But unbeknownst to Sonu, Pinky has a shadowy past in which Vicky figures prominently.
Some viewers may feel the conception of Sonu as a passive simpleton — until the worm turns — upsets the dramatic balance of the film. But those who go with the flow will find the thrill is in the Mumbai-born, Bard College-trained helmer’s bravura and baroque visual style, one that owes as much to docu and experimental filmmakers as to Scorsese, Welles and von Sternberg, plunging viewers into the characters’ social milieu.
Per press notes, Ahluwalia spent several years in the late 1990s investigating underground filmakers for a docu project that ultimately fell though because it was too dangerous for his contacts to appear on screen. His research pays off in full here, making palpable the sweat, blood and tears of these misfits working on the margins.
The mesmerizing widescreen lensing of Mohanan finds beauty as well as grotesquerie in Bombay’s seamy underbelly. In many shots, he mediates the image through screens, windows and wafting plumes of smoke.
Every element of the intelligent production design works in aid of helmer’s vision. The color-faded Kodak stock and 1980s costumes and hairstyles nail the period while a throbbing electronic score sows seeds of unease.
The exploitation films within the film are handled discreetly, with their titles and taglines more lurid than anything shown onscreen.