Full of inky blacks cast against a sickly patina of pinks, greens, and yellows, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely envisions a world in which Hollywood glamour has been passed through a filter of grime and decay. It’s a fitting look for this period portrayal of Bombay’s “C-movie” scene, one that immerses itself in a nasty demimonde of hustlers, gangsters, and wannabe actors, who produce cheapo trash flicks in blatant defiance of decency laws. Ahluwalia puts a lot of care into depicting this setting, which, despite its late-1980s time period, remains mired in a peak-’70s aesthetic, full of seething disco parties, gargantuan lapels, and regrettable hairstyles. A gifted stylist, the director nails the visual aspect, but struggles finding an interesting story amid the haze of hairspray and garish colors.
Lack of narrative material isn’t an issue for the film’s coterie of smut peddlers, including director/producer Pinky (Niharika Singh) and his younger brother, Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who works as an errand boy while dreaming of making his own movies. It’s telling that these dreams aren’t rooted in any specific creative desire; Sonu’s scheme for shooting his first feature involves first raising funds to hire a sleazy screenwriter. Miss Lovely’s biggest selling point is behind-the-scenes dirt, so it’s not surprising to see that filmmaking is strictly business for everyone involved, a triangular dynamic that fulfills the base desires of greedy producers, attention-hungry actors, and thrill-seeking audiences simultaneously. This dynamic gets laid out precisely in an opening sequence, where a reel-change mishap at a grimy theater results in an abrupt leap from cheesy horror to softcore porn, a shift greeted by smiles from the male audience.
The film includes a few too many cute moments like this, and the focus sometimes feels as narrowly crowd-pleasing as that of the junk films it celebrates, playing on the steady allure of period excess illustrated in lavish, colorful detail, with a story that often feels secondary to this aesthetic. The visuals are indeed gorgeous, and the films-within-a-film are so spot-on that they at first seem to be actual reconstituted footage from the era. Such nostalgic precision recalls the recent Berberian Sound Studio, the key difference being that Peter Strickland’s thriller favored restraint in its dispensation of period totems, incorporating them in service of a formally ambitious character study. Ahluwalia’s film does the opposite, going all out on the positional markers while scrimping on narrative fundamentals.
Befitting this emphasis on shorthand, Sonu is a cipher without much specific shading, one whose naïve aspirations put him on the fast track to spiritual decay. It’s an arc the film borrows from the similarly toned Boogie Nights, with the transition from film to VHS serving as an indicator that the party is finally over. Ahluwalia mirrors this downshift by resorting to stock visual symbols, draining the colors and turning Bombay gray, rainy, and morose. Thankfully the director has one last trick up his sleeve, as the otherwise dolorous third act is conducted with almost zero dialogue, plaguing a defeated Sonu with visions and nightmares. Miss Lovely climaxes with the glittering mirage of a Bollywood-style dance sequence, one which sums up the film’s conflicts in the words of frivolous pop song, a stunning set piece that cements the association between deplorable behavior and frothy entertainment.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 18—28.