When most of us think about Indian films, we play images of song and dance romances from Bollywood in our heads, when in reality, Bollywood is only a (highly visible/popular) segment of Indian cinema. Miss Lovely is a film that shatters any preconceived notions you might have on Indian filmmaking, and does so in the first couple minutes.
It’s rare to discover a new movie that you know almost nothing about, but Miss Lovely definitely qualified. I was firmly out of my depth with this one, a Hindi-language drama about the underground business of sleazy horror and soft core porn films in Mumbai in the 1980s. Even knowing this plot, there was 5% of me that considered the possibility that this would be a musical porn (a potential billion dollar industry).
It wasn’t. The skin crawling film comes from writer-director Ashim Ahluwalia, and is as uncomfortable as that log line indicates. Miss Lovely opens with a trippy, psychedelic 1970s vibe, that segues into a schlocky, yet no less terrifying horror movie. This movie, we learn, is played in a dark, shady cineplex. It’d quickly interrupted and replaced by a low-grade porn film, much to the delight of the audience in the shady theater. This was likely the only way many porn films were ever seen, in secret, and as a bait and switch with other fare.
In the back, Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, below) attempts to sell reels of his cruel older brother Vicky’s (Anil George) newest film. When he returns with the dough, Vicky strikes him, because their corrupt/gangster producer PK caught wind of their attempted back dealings. Vicky is the director, but he wants to produce and distribute the films; he wants all the power and money. We quickly find out how dangerous that ambition is.
Sonu is subservient to Vicky in every way, beaten down physically and verbally, and unsurprisingly is unhappy with his lot in life. He doesn’t like being a pimp for the girls that Vicky is constantly hiring for his “romantic” films. Instead of getting out of the industry entirely, Sonu wants to make his own film, a real romance, and he has a title: Miss Lovely. He secures financing by stealing from his brother and (somehow) from a bank that knows his check is forged.
Sonu also thinks he has his star, a fresh-faced ingenue named Pinky (Niharika Singh) that he falls in love with. Not only does Sonu have to face the wrath of Vicky, but that of the gangsters funding Vicky’s films, and the law. To say these movies are frowned upon by Indian society is an understatement thanks to their strict values, and the cops are all over the racket.
Of course, Vicky warns Sonu that Pinky isn’t what she seems. Is the despicable Vicky manipulating Sonu, because he wants Pinky for himself? Is Pinky a con artist? Is Sonu in over his head (YES)? Do we care? Miss Lovely is such a dark, depressing and seedy movie, with no characters to root for or like, that ultimately, it’s hard to sit through. I appreciate how awful the porn industry is, and what a stark contrast this movie is from most Indian cinema, but unfortunately that doesn’t make me enjoy watching the movie. It’s unflinching, unapologetic and unlikable.
The commendably retro and grungy film is so gritty and real, with eerie grindhouse-like clips of Vicky’s films spliced throughout, that are supremely effective, though mostly only serving to hammer the morose themes in even further. Miss Lovely will open your mind about Indian film, but it’s not easy, and won’t exactly make you want to watch more.