A sibling rivalry between two brothers is put to the test; a woman with a past reveals she’s not who she seems; a naive man inadvertently digs himself into a deeper hole when he seeks to claw his way out of it: You’re apt to see those themes, and a few more – with musical numbers – in a lot of Bollywood films. But in Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, the Indian director eschews Bollywood in favor of grindhouse for a self-reflexive take on a piece of India’s bygone past.
Set in the seedy motel rooms and back alleys of late-Eighties Mumbai, Miss Lovely tells the story of the Duggal brothers: lusty, domineering Vicky (George) and brooding, resentful Sonu (Siddiqui), who are prolific producers of C-grade, softcore horror films. With financial backing provided by shady mobsters, the two shoot these illicit films (producing pornography in India is illegal, often with a mandatory jail time) in abandoned warehouses, using a ragtag crew to hold house lamps for lighting, and paying wannabe starlets to have sex with costumed monsters and demons. Sonu has dreams of going legit, of making a proper romance film called Miss Lovely, but removing himself from under his older brother’s thumb becomes increasingly problematic, and this desire fuels much of the film’s narrative. When he meets the seemingly virtuous Pinky (Singh), he thinks he has found his perfect leading lady. Stealing and lying to come up with funds for the project, Sonu’s plans inexorably go south, and the camera is right there to catch it.
Well, maybe not right there. Miss Lovely’s kinetic cinematography, by K.U. Mohanan, recalls the great collaborations between Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle. The handheld camera is constantly moving (viewers susceptible to motion sickness may want to pop a Dramamine), always framing the action off-kilter, and often from a distance, rendering the plot almost second-hand to the rogue’s gallery of unsavory supporting characters filling the screen at any given time, partying and hustling in squalid nightclubs and cramped, de facto offices. This is a film that exudes a sleazy, sinister air, and that is a compliment. The production design alone, the antithesis of glossy Bollywood films, is flawless, with empty liquor bottles, peeling wallpaper, and discarded detritus often overshadowing the actors. It is one of the most beautifully squalid films since the glory days of the Seventies, but Ahluwalia mixes too many genres – thriller, romance, European arthouse – and distances much of the story, leaving the viewer with too much to parse out. Elliptical, authentic, and with a strong palate of visual flair, Miss Lovely can be a confusing concoction at times, but it is never boring.
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