The film comes bearing the weight of the festival circuit, including the cachet of being chosen for Un Certain Regard at Cannes. The sleazy side of shiny Bollywood is perhaps irresistible to festival programmers and critics abroad. That is all right as long as the sleaze that is being exposed is authentic. What we see in Miss Lovely is a strange mix of porn and laughable horror, a miscegenation that is born of the director’s uninformed mind. Horror of the Ramsay Brothers school is now a sub-genre studied by earnest film scholars in search of doctoral theses. What Ahluwalia does in his film-within-film exemplifies the whole approach. A woman of questionable attraction quotient lies on a bridal bed wearing a zari red sari and appropriate tinsel jewellery. The director of the film-within-film tells her to mimic orgasmic ecstasy as a scaly, blood-smeared face approaches her. Which audience out for cheap thrills and vicarious sex will be turned on by what is being churned out in these dingy rooms is open to question.
The screenplay, which goes all over the place in a badly structured documentary fashion, had earlier shown an audience of men in a seedy theatre, their faces mirroring various stages of sexual excitement. The film on screen is again a horror film. Horror as a genre incorporates sex as both subject and metaphor with various degrees of expertise, execution and sensibility. Ahluwalia’s grasp of the subject is almost abysmal.
As for the irony of the theme, the protagonist Sonu (a wasted Nawazuddin Siddiqui) falling in love with a young woman who wants to enter the world of porn films remains at the level of just an idea. Sonu is a reluctant part of this world, forced by his older brother to fetch and carry cans of smut from producers to distributors. Shot in recognisable locations around Bombay — the lobby of the refurbished Liberty for example — there are believable scenes of parties where a catfight erupts between the new favourite and the passed over woman. Everyone is uniformly unattractive. The point is made and taken.
Where Miss Lovely fails is in creating a sense of identification with Sonu and what he goes through. All the grainy, gloomy shots of dirty staircases and ill-lit stark rooms are of no use when we don’t feel for the person whose travails we follow. If this is alienation by design, it fails to create the critical distance between viewer and film. If not, it is a self-consciously arty exercise for a niche audience that really doesn’t know how the sleaze sector worked in the India of late 1980s. One can recall how the Malayalam film Her Nights — not dubbed into Hindi — played in theatres in the north and made Malayalam cinema synonymous with soft porn in the public mind, which was ignorant of Adoor, Aravindan and Shaji Karun, not to speak of Mohanlal, Mammooty and Bharat Gopy. Such are the ironies of Indian cinema and its consumers.
The film that really delved at depth emotionally and physically into the world of sexual exploitation is Ajay Bahl’sB.A.Pass. The initiation of a small town young man into the adult world of sexually rapacious older women is tragic, as Mukesh gets caught in the coils of ShilpaShukla (the actor won a couple of critics prizes at popular award shows that kicked off the new year), who portrayed the older woman with cold clarity and ruthless self-interest. Shadab Khan’s Mukesh is a willing victim, who blunders into a no exit situation. This unsparing expose of middle class sexual rapacity in a Delhi railway colony is far more chilling than Ahluwalia’s pretentious, shallow foray into a world where the victims don’t come out victimised and the innocent insider wanting to get out leaves us indifferent.