Miss Lovely as a scary movie
The film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui is set in the late 1980s and delves deep into the Indian C-grade horror and soft-core industry
Ashim Ahluwalia's first narrative feature film, Miss Lovely, is set in the late 1980s and delves deep into the workings of the Indian C-grade horror and soft-core industry. The priapic concerns of a monster, admittedly ursine to be objectionable, on a wedding night? The Duggal brothers, Vicky (Anil George) and Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), will put it together. The brothers as protagonists, leads to the assumption that they are a riff on Ramsay brothers, one of whom, reportedly, was outraged by the portrayal in this film. A pair of grim brothers behind a soft-core industry is not new. California had the Mitchell brothers - a relationship that ended in fratricide - who opened the O'Farrell theatre, made adult films and had a slew of obscenity cases against them. Miss Lovely tackles all such horrors of yore. But is Miss Lovely itself a scary movie?
The first sequence is almost an allegory. A haunted decrepit mansion attracts our hero and he makes his way inside. It's all quiet and calm until ghost-like hands start strangling him from behind a pillar. The house is populated by screaming, gnashing, white saree clad devils, some suspended over the screen in garish 80s graphics, and we cut to our real hero in the projection room, Sonu, handing over the film that he's brought, which will be swapped with the one playing. The original was possibly a pure horror film. What Sonu just brought is a set of lewd scenes strung together, the day job that the brothers hold. Sonu, a romantic, finds himself shackled in this haunted mansion that is their movie making universe, a palace of lucre that Vicky regards as home.
The jump scares and atmospheric thrills are not the only ones that contribute to the horror nature of Miss Lovely. While the film deals with a subject seldom discussed under lights, the form too goes a long way in fulfilling this purpose. "Dark" and "seedy" are words often used in describing Miss Lovely. There is hardly any sunlight or even artificial light that actually illuminates, throughout its run. Ahluwalia shot Miss Lovely on film, which both evokes the period and reinforces the absence of taffeta texture. When Sonu is escorting an inebriated Poonam (Zeena Bhatia) to her home, not everything across the widescreen is clearly visible. It immediately cuts to Vicky climbing the unlit stairs behind them and he is framed like a predator who has been closely following them. Sonu stalks Pinky from a club in the ground floor to the dimly lit corridors above. For a long time, we see only his shadow moving, till he comes to a landing where two corridors intersect and she notices him. She says her uncle doesn't like her meeting producers or directors and just as she gives him her number, a figure appears in the distance. The same happens later when Vicky stalks Pinky (Niharika Singh) around dark, endless alleys and passageways of the nightclub.
A remarkable visual and aural experience, Miss Lovely doesn't bother itself with a plot. It is about a man dealing with life, wanting to shape it the way he desires. By Ahluwalia's own admission, his film is set at the very end of the long socialist period in India. A time just before liberalisation kicks in, with cynicism on its deathbed but also at its most resolute. The visuals and soundscape contribute to this - new year parties are scored with Ilaiyaraja's Ilamai Idho Idho (a song refashioned in this year's Angamaly Diaries) and Biddu's collaborations with Nazia Hassan. At one such party, Vicky and his more affluent partners look down upon Pinky and Sonu from a height. They are drawn as silhouettes, with a red neon light next to them blinding anyone in their path. They look more like vultures than men. Exploitation is another horrifying reality in Miss Lovely. And yet, Ahluwalia lays bare the irony of this environment hosting women with more agency than what they enjoy in films from the A-grade industry of that era.
It is also exploitative of a man like Sonu, milquetoast in his appeal and ineluctable from the trappings of his own destiny. At his weakest point in the film, Sonu is left to fend for himself during the filming of a pornographic scene and he notices some disturbance. He leaves the filming nook and approaches the foreground, the screen occupied by his face with only a distant grumble of a motor for sound. As he looks at spots in the distance, his countenance betrays the absolute horror that we've come to share with him.
(Miss Lovely is streaming on Netflix)