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CANNES — A pair of Bombay movie-business slumdogs dream of becoming millionaires in this unusual Hindi-language arthouse thriller, which debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes. Shot by former documentary maker Ashim Ahluwalia, Miss Lovely actually started life as a non-fiction project before evolving into a more artful kind of heavily stylized drama. Co-financed with international money, it has the potential to play beyond festivals, although its lethargic mood and elusive story will limit it to small niche audiences.
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The action takes place in the late 1980s on the grubby, low-rent, semi-criminal fringes of the Bombay film business. Two brothers, Sonu (Nawazuddin Sidiqui,) and Vicky (Anil George), scrape a semi-legal living churning out trashy thrillers that combine pulpy horror with lurid soft porn. These artfully faked clips provide the film’s most immediate surface pleasures, mini-masterpieces of cheap special effects and cheesy music that echo the scratchy retro aesthetic of Tarantino’s flawed but colorful Grindhouse project.
But Ahluwalia clearly has more serious cinematic intentions here than knowing pastiche, instead luring us into a murky backstage story about a high-risk deal that the brothers strike with serious gangsters, garnished with a side order of sexual exploitation and police corruption. A fraternal feud also develops after Sonu falls for an enigmatic beauty, Pinky (Singh). The already sleazy plot darkens midway through with the sordid murder of a former soft-porn actress, underlining the toxic misogyny of the main characters. A hellish jail sequence, shock revelations and a grisly final showdown comprise the uneven final act.
On paper, the plot of Miss Lovely sounds like a vibrant behind-the-scenes retro-thriller in the Scorsese, De Palma or Paul Thomas Anderson tradition. But the finished article is a very different animal, chiefly because Ahluwalia chooses to tell a potentially lurid story in such a listless and elliptical manner. Dialogue is very spare, with long scenes drifting along wordlessly and aimlessly. The performance are competent, but ill-served by sketchy and cryptic characterisation. A queasy ambient score of industrial drones, clanks and rumbles seeps into every frame, amplifying the mood of creeping unease.
Partly driven by his concerns that Bollywood-dominated India is the “laughing stock” of global cinema, Ahluwalia has striven for a very self-consciously arty aesthetic here, more Gus Van Sant than Michael Mann. This is a commendably bold way to approach material that might otherwise have drifted into routine lowlife crime-thriller territory, but it also drains a rich story of narrative momentum and emotional punch. Miss Lovely sets out to prove that Indian cinema can be as rambling, pretentious and frustratingly opaque as a European art movie. It succeeds rather too well.
Venue: Cannes, Un Certain Regard screening, May 24
Production company: Future East
Cast: Nawazuddin Sidiqui, Niharika Singh, Anil George
Director: Ashim Ahluwalia
Writers: Ashim Ahluwalia, Uttam Sirur
Producers: Pinaki Chatterjee, Shumona Goel, Sanjay Shah
Cinematography: K.U. Mohanan
Editor: Ashim Ahluwalia
Sales company: Fortissimo
Rating TBC, 110 minutes
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