“It’s never going to be easy for people like us,” squirms Vicky Duggal (Anil George), Mumbai’s foremost specialist in smut cinema. The degenerate auteur lectures his meek younger brother, Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), about the realities of their trade, specifically the stranglehold wielded by low-level distribution companies in bed with organized crime syndicates. This “woe is me” attitude, of it being hard out there for a pimp, remains prominent throughout Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, an anti-climactic and emotionally trite 1980s-set tragedy following the rise and fall of the Duggal brothers within the local softcore industry.
From the opening moments, Ahluwalia emulates the grungy aesthetic of Indian films from the 1970s. Psychedelic colors splash across the credits like exploding lava lamps, while the grainy contours of each following shot align with the film’s dirty behind-the-scenes debauchery. The world of C-level porn is seen as an unstable place for these characters, a point the filmmakers hammer home by relying entirely on shaky-cam visuals. This fragmented style makes the cramped corridors connecting the Duggal brothers’ salacious production set and their tomb-like offices even more disorienting and creepy.
But all the verisimilitude in the world can’t rectify Miss Lovely’s problematic sense of conflict. Sonu’s desire to film the greatest romance film ever made, starring his newfound love, Pinky (Niharika Singh), never comes close to getting off the ground. Instead, most of the film is concerned with the absurd ways he manipulates his brother’s shady business partners in an attempt to find funding for the project. Not a second goes by where Ahluwalia gives us reason to believe in the cowardly artist’s creative endeavors or his proclaimed business savvy.
Throw in a group of supporting characters made up of one-note villains and hedonists and you’ve got a lifeless facsimile of Boogie Nights, and sans the haunted desperation and stylistic fervor so wonderfully on display in Paul Thomas Anderson’s seedy masterpiece. Miss Lovely, which pushes back and forth between scattered and downright glacial pacing, leans heavily on cliché acts of betrayal and comeuppance before reaching a politically motivated denouement where India’s class system and gender inequality are put under the microscope.
Sonu’s lackluster noir voiceover preordains his failures as both a filmmaker and male protector, and Ahluwalia essentially paints his character’s plight as some kind of social statement on the crippling impact of patriarchy. The women of Miss Lovely certainly deserve better, as they’re often relegated to the role of victim, harmed or murdered simply to propel the plot along. The titular character of Pinky is a perfect example of this offense, nothing more than a cipher of interest to Sonu, who claims she’s his one and only muse. But her lack of dimension strips the film of the one female character that should have been strong enough to call bullshit on his self-serving sincerity. So we have to.