I recently sat down to chat with director, Ashim Ahluwalia, whose first feature film, Miss Lovely, recently opened in New York City. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ahluwalia is not what I expected, as I anticipated meeting the next big Bollywood director. He’s a director’s director, a down-to-earth guy, well-informed on cinema, totally aware of his field, and passionate about making movies that matter. I approached the topic of Indian cinema (a subject new to me) in hopes of broadening my knowledge. After speaking with Ahluwalia, I walked away feeling much enlightened on the business of Indian cinema and the emergence of C-grade movies. My fears were confirmed that it’s hard everywhere for filmmakers who don’t want to just make films that are “instantaneously gratifying.” But—be it Hollywood or Bollywood—it’s good to know that there are directors out there like Ahluwalia who are committed to making movies that matter.
West: As I started doing my background research on this new “Bollywood” director, Ashim Ahluwalia, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he is not a Bollywood director, but rather a director who happens to be Indian, and a fine director of world cinema.
Ahluwalia: Thank you.
West: You studied [film] here in the USA at Bard. How has studying in the USA informed or created conflict for you in making films in India?
Ahluwalia: Bard was a huge eye-opener for me. It’s a freaky school, even by American standards, and even by American narrative industry cinema. It comes from a very ’60s experimental film tradition, and the way they look at cinema is very different. So, as I was growing up, I was exposed mainly to Hollywood and Bollywood stuff. When I went to Bard, I was exposed to a lot of experimental stuff, world cinema, and a lot Asian cinema, which I had never seen. And also a lot of Indian films from the ’50s and ’60s, which I had also never seen. So, it was suddenly a complete new world. One of the things I took away from Bard was the fact that film is a language. It’s not something that you just take as [a] given. I think that that’s something that we don’t see so much of now. Because people sort of accept the genre that they work in, and there’s no questions about the language and the things that you can do with form. I think when you talk about contemporary Korean and Japanese cinema—they’re still doing that form. Popular film, studio films, will do some weird stuff, and you say “Wow, how do they get away with that?” I’m kind of fascinated and amazed by that way of making film. You know, necessarily flagging it off and making an art house film, which for me is as boring as doing a commercial film, but really this new way of thinking about cinema, like, collapsing into itself. I think Miss Lovely is a perfect example of me being very unencumbered in the Indian industry setup, That’s very satisfying, because that means there’s something new to do with film. You’re not retroactively trying to do something that’s already been done twenty years ago. So, that’s where I’m coming from. Bard got me really thinking about form and language and what you can really do with it, and slipping things [in]. How porn is so close to experimental film, and how horror is sometimes so close to sex. These lines that people keep very far apart from each other, but if you slip over them, things really happen that are interesting.
West: But within the film [Miss Lovely], they’re making movies that are marrying horror and soft porn.
Ahluwalia: Exactly! I think for me—you know in India we have a tradition—I think you have that here too—a tradition of the straight up commercial film, and then there’s art house films, and then there’s a big gap in between. Right? I think that what happened is that when I went back [to India], I discovered the C-grade space: the sort of illegal sex film, which had bits of stock footage in it, and had weird mismatched narrative: where an actor suddenly disappears, and is then suddenly replaced by another actor. I think this was actually the missing link for me, between these two spaces. And so, as a first feature, it’s not only an interesting subject, but it’s also defining a space for me.
West: How was Miss Lovely received in India?
Ahluwalia: It’s been received well. I didn’t even expect it to open theatrically—it opened in 400 cinemas in India. The distributor said, “We can do this.” I said, “Are you sure you want to do this because it’s a really challenging film.” It [Miss Lovely] is really frustrating, because it gives you all the clues of a traditional genre movie, a thriller, and then it doesn’t deliver. It delivers something else. And they were like, “No, we really want to do this.” So, what they did is quite interesting. They released it as an art house movie in the cities, and kind of a sexy film in small towns.
West: How interesting.
Ahluwalia: It was really interesting. It was really well received. Actually the week we opened, we were the most popular film. Which makes no sense whatsoever. It could also have to do with the fact that it has all this sexual-titillating content in a country which is very conservative. But the reviews were great.
It was just staggering for me that people just got it. There were reviews from mainstream papers talking about how this film is all about its relationship to Bollywood, and its definition, vis-à-vis, having a dominant film industry that’s kind of a looming force that doesn’t let you make movies.
West: So, this is an example of don’t underestimate your audience.
Ahluwalia: Yeah! You know, I learn that every time. It’s so amazing. There will be the most intelligent cinephile who will be, like, “I don’t get it.” Then there will be some granny, “Oh, that was interesting how that happened.” That makes me excited. So, once you get into that whole thing that only the audience wants is a summer blockbuster, then it becomes difficult to make work.
West: Do you think this creates more opportunities for other Indian filmmakers to make non-glittery [non-Bollywood] films?
Ahluwalia: Yeah. It really helped that this film went to Cannes. Because, suddenly it was like, “Oh, there’s something worth looking at here [in India].” And it was in Rotterdam and Toronto, which is rare for a first feature. Rotterdam is art house and quite rigorous and challenging. Toronto can be quite mainstream, but also very indie, so it has this weird mix. I think the fact that it had a kind of a stamp of approval that allowed for people to say, “Oh this isn’t a sleaze film.” [Otherwise,] I think that people would have just said, “Oh, this is a sleaze movie. Get rid of it.”
West: The distributors, you mean?
Ahluwalia: The distributors, everybody, would not have allowed for the film to circulate. It would have been killed as a weird oddity. And then maybe rediscovered some twenty years later.
West: Are there other [Indian] directors who are making similar films or films about real people?
Ahluwalia: There are, but not so formally radical. I think that the film allowed for non-histrionic acting; the film allowed for a weird space, where you have [a] mix of real people, documentary, and also a darker sort of film. Something that is radical with this film—in the Indian context—is how dark it is, and how it doesn’t ever fulfill that happy moment. Happiness with a tinge of sadness attached to it. I think that tone has never existed in Indian cinema. Because the characters are nuanced: the younger brother is submissive, yet he’s kind of conniving; and the older brother is horribly dominating, yet he’s kind of loyal. Things are not complete.
West: They’re not cookie cutter characters.
Ahluwalia: It doesn’t further along the Indian moral agenda: the family being a good thing. I think that can influence younger [Indian] filmmakers. So, you see films with ambiguous characters, or more incomplete characters and more nuanced, and so, the realness from that aspect, not just the superficial realism from the handheld [documentary look].
West: You mentioned documentaries. I understand that Miss Lovely started out as a documentary that you turned into a narrative film. How has documentary influenced your style and experience?
Ahluwalia: Well, because pornography is illegal—just to put it in context—any kind of pornographic material is illegal; it will get you a minimum of three years in jail. It’s non-bailable. So when you think about these movies, they’re not B-movies, which want to be real movies; they’re C-grade movies that are made for the excuse for these sex bits to be illegally interspersed. They get interspersed at the cinema level, and not through the censors. So these reels, in the ‘80s, used to be delivered on bicycle at night and get spliced into these movies. So you’d have a movie, which people would be waiting for the sex bit to appear. I was fascinated by this. I spent a year and a half with these people. By the end, nobody wanted to be in the documentary. They were, like, “Why would I tell you on camera what I told you last night while [we] were drunk?” Then, I realized how naïve I was. I guess, in a way, how westernized I was by not understanding that these people would hang out with me, but they would never let me make this documentary. Years later, what I did was take all the people and their stories—which were all real—and kind of patch them together and make the script of Miss Lovely. So there are elements of that documentary that worked back into the film. The movies that the two brothers make [in the film] are real C-grade movies. They’re not re-enacted. All that stuff and the sex bits were brought back into the film. So, it allowed room for my earlier life as an experimental filmmaker, using stock footage, reused footage, stuff that in a mainstream film, you’d never get away with.
West: So, you learned a lot in the process of making the film.
Ahluwalia: I’ve become, sort of weirdly, the archaeologist of this stuff and now, unfortunately, I have to say, I’m fucking tired of it—talking about C-grade films. Two years ago, nobody talked about this stuff. Before this film was made, this didn’t exist. It was kind of a vague subculture. This film comes out, and I thought that people in India were going to freak-out, because it’s quite wild, not just formally, but the sex stuff, and the way women are shown. Because women in Indian films are very submissive, or they’re vamps, and they die at the end. The funny thing is that it’s gone the other way. People are non-neurotically talking about subculture. Which is great, because it opened up this huge conversation. Everybody is writing a paper on C-grade cinema; everyone is doing a coffee-table book. It’s gone the other way a bit. And I’m kind of done. But I did it accidently, because I actually restored these films; I had to find them on film. I went into basements to find them, digging up movie negatives, getting them restored. As a result there’s a kind of a resurgence of interest. And now French DVD labels want to put out a series of Indian sex films.
West: While watching Miss Lovely, it made me curious to see these [C-grade films]. The more [Miss Lovely] is shown, the more you’re going to entice people’s curiosity. I guess it’s really good timing, huh? Maybe two years ago you couldn’t have gotten it played?
Ahluwalia: It could be. It took me years to get this film financed, three to four years to make it. Then it went to Cannes in 2012, but then it didn’t get released [in] India until two months ago, when it was released in 400 cinemas. It was stuck in the censors for a year in India. Now it’s being released in the States two years later. So it’s got this very weird, very slow movement, which is very unlike the normal path of a film. Usually, it’s at a festival; then two months later it opens, then DVD, VOD. [Miss Lovely] is so weird, because it has different lives and different ways of being perceived in different cultures. In India, the distributors put it out as an indie art house movie in the cities, and then as a sex film in small towns. So, I have the good fortune of my first feature [film] being in Cannes and in the sleaziest, fleapit cinemas in North India, in the middle of nowhere, which is bizarre. It’s just crazy!
West: You said somewhere that you want to continue to make films that upset, bother, and leave the viewer thinking, why the hell did I watch that?, and then find themselves still thinking about it a week later. As you continue to experience some success, is this something that you can maintain?
Ahluwalia: I would love to do that. I would be disappointed if I made a film that was instantaneously gratifying, and then two weeks later there’s another [hit] movie, and then mine is gone from the public consciousness. I’d feel a bit sad, a bit depressed. I’d feel like an addict. I would need to make another one immediately to get a response; but then [when] I’m not getting a response, and I’m getting great box office, it becomes instant gratification and then instant forgetting.
West: Yeah, an explosion comes instantly, and then is gone instantly. A film is good when it leaves you with some questions, something a little ambiguous, you can come back to it over and over again. Unfortunately, that kind of film doesn’t make billions of dollars.
Ahluwalia: The funny thing is, I get a lot of commercial offers to do commercial movies, like a Slum Dog Millionaire kind of thing. I am being offered those kinds of projects: “Can you do this [movie]; we’ll give you the writer, but it can’t be too art house.” And, I’m a bit, like—“fuck, man!” From a career point of view, it’s probably better; but it also means I’ll have a shorter life as a filmmaker, because in a couple [of] years, I’m going to be known as an old thing [making commercial movies]. So, you have to be careful about these things.
West: Will we see more smaller, intimate, independent Indian films of the caliber of say, Iranian cinema, like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, being made and exported to audiences abroad?
Ahluwalia: Yes, I think you will. I think Iranian cinema is very developed, because it had the Farabi Cinema Foundation that put money into early films, [Abbas] Kiarostami for example, which then allowed for an [Asghar] Farhadi. There’s already a tradition of a delicate realism in Iran. India doesn’t have that, like America; India comes from a tradition of spectacle. You’re taking spectacle, and your working down to a smaller film.
West: But, even in Hollywood, they’re able to turn out some great intimate films. I don’t know how things are in India about foreign cinema coming in.
Ahluwalia: It [India] has a very strong, dominant culture of its own cinema. It’s also very star-driven. Imagine if everyone in the U.S. was making Michael Bay movies, and then one or two people make a small movie. That’s the scale. The films that are really big are the ones that bring in fifty or a hundred times their budget. It’s really difficult, but I think its’ going to happen.
Indian cinema exceeds American cinema with double the number of films. Through the Internet, streaming video Indian cinema is available to Western audiences more than ever before. Ahluwalia is sadly correct in his charge that making smaller, more intimate, films is difficult, but as in the USA, it can be done. And Ahluwalia has indeed proven that it can and will continue to be possible in India, as well, to make films that matter.
—John David West