Friday, January 24, 2014

Sleaze and the unmanly man - notes on Miss Lovely

At one point in Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, a soft-core sex scene is being shot for a horror-titillation movie – the sort of C-grade movie that the Duggal brothers Vicky (Anil George) and Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) specialise in. A bosomy starlet, writhing on a bed in bridal wear, is being given directions – “Tera mard na-mard hai” (“Your husband is impotent”) – and we get a vague sense of what the scene is about: the woman on the bed has her eyes closed or turned away (in the manner expected of a good Indian bride), and so she doesn’t realise that she is being necked not by her husband but by a scaly-headed monster.

The film being shot is a cheesy, low-budget thing that might make the work of the Ramsays seem refined in comparison, and the monster looks more comical than scary. But the contrast between a na-mard (which can be shorthand for a passive, hence “effeminate” man) and a rapacious, hyper-masculine bully is also at the heart of Miss Lovely’s own plot. Of the movie-making Duggals, the younger brother Sonu – our point of entry into the film, because we are privy to his inner thoughts and personal stirrings – is effete and dreamy-eyed, and seems to want to break away from this world. Vicky, on the other hand, is a ruffian who mockingly says “Bada mard bannta hai” when his brother tries to strike out for himself. He is the real fiend here, more of a threat than the badly made up monster in that sex scene could ever be, and he is presented in menacing terms: in one scene in a darkened disco, there is a striking shot of him looking down from a height, a red light next to him blinking away as if to signal Danger.

The brothers will fall out over a seemingly innocent girl named Pinky (Niharika Singh), who wants a break in films and who Sonu becomes besotted with. But that makes Miss Lovely sound more narrative-driven than it is. The idea here isn’t so much to tell “a story” (the plot, such as it is, could be scribbled on the palm of your hand, much like Pinky quickly writing her phone number down on Sonu’s hand during a stolen moment) but to create the mood of a particular world – the world of small-time moviemakers in the late 1980s, conducting shady deals, negotiating the chaos of a profession where things have to be done fast, in hurriedly improvised locations, with the knowledge that a police raid may always be around the corner.

Being abstract and often anti-narrative, this is a slow-moving film (I’ll confess my attention wandered at times) but it tries to do something very interesting: to admit us into this milieu, and the states of mind you might find in it, without over-explaining anything – letting the visuals, the art direction and the sound design do most of the work instead. Much of it is shot in the style of a handheld-camera documentary. There are relatively few outdoor scenes, the main impression is of oppressive interiors, rooms that are small and dimly lit and overcrowded, characters who are almost brushing up against the camera; there is a sense of drifting through shadowy places and hearing faraway voices as if through a tunnel. (I read that director Ahluwalia counts Seijun Suzuki among his influences. I don’t know Suzuki’s films apart from Branded to Kill, but parts of Miss Lovely reminded me of the work of another non-mainstream Japanese director of the 1960s, Nobuo Nagakawa, especially Jigoku, which offered a stylised vision of hell and its lost souls, looking for small salvations.) In fact, a viewer can get so steeped in this setting that it may come as a minor shock to hear – in one scene – the polished, anodyne voice of an English-speaking newsreader talking about exploitation movies and forced prostitution. These incidents seems like they belong to another world, the newsreader says in what sounds like a dispassionately patronising tone, and of course, from her perspective, they do.

But this is also an “other world” film in the sense of the past being a foreign country - it is a reminder that the late 80s and the early 90s were a time of transition, in India’s metropolises at least, and in the entertainment industry: the last years of the video-cassette culture, the shift to an era of multiple TV channels(!) and the greater possibilities they brought for home entertainment. We see Ambassadors and Fiats (and a few Maruti 800s) on the roads, black-and-white TV screens with pictures barely visible through static. Nataraj pencil ads play over transistors and little boys fight each other with makeshift maces, no doubt in imitation of the TV Mahabharata which would have been playing at the time. Even the film’s opening titles play like a homage to 1980s B-movies (or some 80s “A-movies” for that matter) – garish background colours, names like Biddu and Nazia Hassan improbably sharing space with Ilaiyaraaja

At the same time there is nothing dated about the contrast between the supposedly glamorous world of show-business (even in a C-movie universe) and behind-the-scene realities. A newspaper clipping places a photo of a starlet smiling out at the camera next to a picture of her muddy corpse found in a swamp. A mother tells a producer that her daughter will do anything and gets the approving response, “Bahut acchhe sanskaar deeye hain”. Throughout, one is aware of the divide between people who are motivated and single-minded enough to make a life for themselves in this world, and those who are unable to.

Which brings us back to Sonu, for Miss Lovely also begs the question: what might happen when a man with a strong introspective impulse, given to philosophising and dreaming, finds himself born to the manor of a coarse, cut-throat world like this one? His voiceovers (which overlap sometimes with the dialogue in a scene) include lines like “Aadmi ka level hona chahiye – level nahin toh aadmi kya”. He is too idealistic and too meditative to join his brother in playing the “bada game”. And for me one problem was that I didn’t really feel like I had got to know him, or understand how he came to be working in this business for so long without having his heart in it. One shot in that disco scene has Sonu, left in the lurch, holding two glasses and looking confused as the smoke of the dance floor envelops him. This film has many intriguing things in it, but its protagonist – the person we want to relate to or at least empathise with – remains as distant and hazy as that shot suggests.


  1. couldn't the reason for Sonu working in this buisness for so long be Vicky (his brother), I felt from what I saw that Vicky had a grasp over Sonu. With Sonu being dominated by his elder brother, and at the same time a sort of warped loyalty towards him.

    1. Of course. Just saying that I didn't get a real sense of the character's personal history. Though that could have been intentional.

  2. This is wonderful. Thanks for writing! I loved the film, even though, or maybe because, it was too dark.

  3. I personally was bowled over by the film, especially since its specific intention is to build a certain mood with textures. It's a welcome change from Dedh Ishqiya - where everything interesting gets subsumed in trying to resolve a complicated plot. Thankfully Ahluwalia decided to ignore plot and character.

    And you must see more Seijun Suzuki - another guy who took densely plotted scripts and threw logic out, making design the primary drive behind the films. Especially recommend Tokyo Drifter and Youth of the Beast.

    Did you manage to see Om Dar-ba-Dar, Jai? I was hoping to read something on that. :)

  4. I am reminded of one scene in 'Blue Valentine': Michelle Williams says to Ryan Gosling: "Be a man" (along with many other things) and he replies: what does that even man? There's plenty of pro-women argument nowadays, in which women have been asked to be bold, outspoken. The people who take this stance are well-meaning idiots; they fail to realize that imposing some existing model of "how a woman should be" is foolish, and is against the idea of free will. And what does free will mean? It means that a woman can wear a short skirt, without worrying about "log kya kahenge".

    Similarly, there is - and always has been - the notion of "man". What a man is supposed to be: tall, dark, handsome, strong, intelligent, virile, fecund (or whatever the manly word for that is), humorous, stiff upper lipped...if there could be a man who possessed even half of these attributes, he'd pretty much be a rockstar or something. For who can be so perfect?

    And what about the less perfect ones? What do they do?

    the above "qualities" focus only on the external part, viz, the looks. But what about other subtle ideas of what manhood is? In a scene from "Pyaar ke Side Effects", Mallika's father tells Rahul Bose that its not a good thing for a man's ego if the wife earns more. And how many times do we come across such cases where the wife *does* actually earn more than the husband (and frankly, I don't see anything wrong in it. Nowadays, earning potential is not based on gender). So what do those husbands do, whose wives earn more than they do? Feel unmanly.

    Manliness--or the self-imposed idea of it, more than herpes, has been the undoing of so many men. And in order to keep themselves "ahead of women", men turn sexist, and misogynists, thereby harming women as well.

    Whoever created this notion of "manliness" must have been a very sick *man*

  5. imposing some existing model of "how a woman should be" is foolish, and is against the idea of free will

    People are free to express their opinions just as women are free to make their choices. Nobody is imposing any "model" here.

    It means that a woman can wear a short skirt, without worrying about "log kya kahenge".

    Oh. What a classic adolescent male conception of female "liberation" this is!

    And how many times do we come across such cases where the wife *does* actually earn more than the husband (and frankly, I don't see anything wrong in it. Nowadays, earning potential is not based on gender). So what do those husbands do, whose wives earn more than they do? Feel unmanly.

    Contrary to popular perception there really is no great social conditioning at work that opposes the idea of women earning more than men. It's been very common through ages. My maidservant earns more than her drunkard husband! Yes, but in reality, men in general do earn more than women. But that's not because of the "evil" society. But because women often make different choices owing to biological differences. For eg: Many women restrict labour force participation often willingly to give birth to kids and nurture them (a very essential thing, unless ofcourse you also believe childbirth to be an "evil pre-modern" custom). Lots of women ofcourse continue to have careers with families (credit to them!) but unconsciously choose slightly less demanding careers where they can attain a better work-life balance. All this reflects in male vs female wage differential! This isn't to be bemoaned. But people who think of sexes and equality in the abstract look at these differential outcomes and cry foul!

    Sadly no matter how hard we try, the sexes are "different" not "equal". Attempts to establish equality are like equating apples with oranges.

  6. Manliness--or the self-imposed idea of it, more than herpes, has been the undoing of so many men

    Maybe. But by the same token it has also probably been the making of many men! We aren't wise enough to pass judgment.

    Even left-wing feminist thinkers like Camille Paglia have openly acknowledged the importance of male ego and its crucial role in driving this world both constructively and destructively. Not saying you should agree with Paglia entirely. But atleast acknowledge these are complex issues, with no simple black and white answers.

  7. I was impressed by the film but hand held camera came in theway of enjoying the film. Certain parts of film had camera work and acting which selfconscious in a bad way. For instance when Nawaz kills his brother the way he expresses his pent up frustration and theres no sound. Very self conscious

  8. --- this Motherland Magazine profile on the Ramsay Brothers.

  9. Jai, have been following your recommendations & watched both Ship of Theseus & Miss Lovely this week. Our local library carried both films! I really liked both films, & agree with most of what you wrote about ML. The production design was wonderful. I have always found issues with Indian movies that do period, & hence this movie scored highly for me. The Weston tapes, Vimal billboards, Nataraj pencils - everything gave it a lived in feeling. And I remember the movies being referred to here also - Shaitaani Ilaka & Chudail Number 1s of the world. In the making of featurette in the DVD Ashim Ahluwalia describes the movie as noir, & that's what I was thinking of too while watching it. The simpleton brother (aukaat comes to mind a few times as he feebly plots & plans) & the manipulative woman are such noir tropes (in a good way!). It reminded me a lot of the Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There. If the story was a bit more substantial, it could have been Ed Wood, but I liked what I saw. Hopefully I see some more of Ahluwalia's work in the future. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Btw, the sound quality in the DVD I watched (the NFDC Cinemas of India series) was very bad. It was so low I could barely hear it, & the English subtitles took away a lot of the authenticity of the dialogue.