Cannes 2012: 'Miss Lovely' Director Ashim Ahluwalia on Indian Cinema (Q&A)
While pursuing a career as a noted commercials director, Ashim Ahluwalia, 40, made a name with his award-winning 2007 docu-drama John & Jane revolving around India's call center industry servicing overseas customers. Ahluwalia now tackles Mumbai filmdom's sleazy underbelly with his latest outing Miss Lovely which unspools in the Un Certain Regard section. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ahluwalia explains how India's indie scene is still finding its feet.
The Hollywood Reporter: Miss Lovely refers to the underbelly of the Mumbai film industry where C-grade sleaze/slasher films cater to a mostly hinterland audience. How were you drawn to this subject?
Ashim Ahluwalia: If you talk about indie cinema, it's really these guys working in the underbelly that are the indie players even if sometimes their films are terrible. They shoot films with no resources in five days. They use whatever they have, kitchen utensils – everything - and make films and recover their money. They are confident and are saying “F--- you” to Bollywood (the mainstream Hindi film industry). For 20 to 30 years these kind of films have been watched not just in remote rural cinemas but also in cities. Audiences are watching cheap sex-horror films with titles like Maut Ka Chehra (The Face of Death). So these kind of filmmakers are quite ballsy. They are not intimidated by Bollywood stars. I could identify with their rebellion. Also, this film is not a parody. (While researching for this subject initially as a documentary), hanging out with these guys I knew that I was not going to make fun of them. Miss Lovely is a very Indian film and yet it is not typical Bollywood or so-called parallel cinema.
THR: What kind of visual and production aesthetics did you have in mind?
Ahluwalia: It's about genre cinema and shot wide-screen cinemascope. I was looking at inspirations from Japanese cinema. It's visually very strong with new interpretations. Yet it's not a Quentin Tarantinto parody of C-grade cinema. It is set in the Eighties so it draws a lot from that era of Bollywood as to how shots were constructed. It was a different language of shot taking which doesn't exist today.
THR: What do you want international audiences to take away from Miss Lovely?
Ahluwalia: The primary thing I want them to take away is that Indian cinema is not all Bollywood. That's the misconcepetion. My film wants to break that perception that we are under-educated about films. We are actually the laughing stock in terms of cinema internationally. It's important for us to have the language and vocabulary of cinema and be very confident. And that is what Cannes seems to have picked on (with respect to the Un Certain Regard selection of Miss Lovely). I am already getting international feedback from observers who are now seeing that we are getting to be more confident about a new kind of cinema.
THR: Were you tempted to go for shock value given the film's off the wall theme?
Ahluwalia: For me films that have any shock value, they fade away quite fast. They don't have staying power. Frankly it takes a lot to shock people these days. And once you seen it, it's done. I was aware of that and in fact people are very surprised how not shocking my film is, given its theme. It really deals with the human side because it's a domestic story of these two brothers who make these kind of films. There is a little bit of nudity but it's done a most banal way.
THR: How challenging was it to arrange funding?
Ahluwalia: My previous film (2007 docu-drama) John & Jane had a lot of international traction so I made connections which came in handy for Miss Lovely. We raised some funding from producers in France, Germany and Japan (in addition to the project being awarded a production grant from the Global Film Initiative). So I had total freedom on the film and it's a good case study for financing.
THR: Being an indie filmmaker under the Godzilla of mainstream Indian cinema, do you feel marginalized? Or is that the angst that keeps you going?
Ahluwalia: I am so used to it now I don't think about it. I really don't see myself as this lone guy making different films, I just do my own thing. And I don't see mainstream films anyway.
THR: What is your take on the Indian indie scene?
Ahluwalia: I think it's very difficult without international support. India is a star dominated industry. It's not about films it's about stars. But I also think that the indie scene is over-rated because we are still finding our voices. It's not a scene yet and everybody has varying relationships with Bollywood. My film has nothing to do with Bollywood.
THR: But these kind of films are also giving a platform to new and upcoming talent.
Ahluwalia: That's true. For instance, (one of the actors in Miss Lovely) Nawaazuddin Siddiqui is playing his first lead role. I was never interested in stars and when I saw him I gave him the lead. If he becomes another Irrfan Khan (acclaimed Indian actor whose international credits include Slumdog Millionaire), that's fine, but new talent should be getting roles for what they can offer.
THR: Internationally, there have been instances where major stars don't mind deconstructing themselves, perhaps like Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis. Do you see that happening in India?
Ahluwalia: The Indian industry is quite heavily inspired by the American industry so this kind of a thing can happen. It has already started with a star like Aamir Khan who also dabbles in unconventional films. But our box office is so commercial, that most stars don't see the need. Aamir is following the Hollywood model doing both the star vehicle (3 Idiots) and the offbeat film (Mumbai Dairies). Sometimes you can't imagine he is the same guy in both these kind of films.
THR: Would you like to direct a film with a major star as a possible mashup of the indie and mainstream genres?
Ahluwalia: I wouldn't say no to that intrinsically but I really do have to say that stars don't interest me on a fundamental level. Because it's too much about them and I don't think they can really deconstruct themselves. I mean even in The Tree of Life, the star (Brad Pitt) dominates the frame. They take away from the essence of the film which the director has in mind. Honestly, when mainstream marquee stars want to deconstruct themselves by playing the disabled school teacher, they still end up playing that as if they are doing Ben Hur. I really don't think you can have the star and the director together. It's really either one of them. For me, perhaps I could work with someone who is not an obvious star but still comes from mainstream cinema. I would rather give a chance to new talent that could eventually go to stardom rather than the other way round. I also have to say that whatever our indie scene believes in, one common belief is that we don't want to engage with the ridiculous star system. That is a general consensus across the board. We need new people with talent and cannot have the mediocre model stand-in guys.