Saturday, January 18, 2014

Interview with Ashim Ahluwalia

After a stint at Cannes and a year long battle with the Censor Board, Ashim Ahluwalia's excellent Miss Lovely finally released in theaters this week. Though everyone loved the film, there was one consistent criticism - the lack of a deep story and the indulgent 'Film Festival scenes'. 

Why would a filmmaker who goes to the furthest extent in detailing, direction, casting, lighting and sound not focus on a decent story? 

So we met Ashim over a round of drinks (four to be exact) and we finally got to understand his point of view. Ashim has this rare combination of uncompromising vision, bravery and massive talent and passion to stick to his headstrong ideals. And he really, really fucking knows cinema.

Regarding his deliberate exclusion of a big story, Ashim said that any movie that he makes will be about the form, and not the plot. He has absolutely no interest in catering to the rules of commercial cinema nor the rules of independent cinema. Cinema is one medium which allows him to be expressionist and build up on atmosphere and mood, so what's the point of spoonfeeding a story to the audience? In fact his script had more detailing on the story but he chopped off huge portions of it during editing. 

Also, he wants to put every genre of cinema into one film and fuck with all of the rules of every element of every genre. He partially achieved this in Miss Lovely. And with this ideology he's making an INDIAN film, where every genre used to be there in the 80s and 90s films. This is very unlike most new age indie filmmakers who try very hard to ape world cinema with the facade of Indian sensibility.

He also explained why there were random shots of foliage and staircases in the second half of the film. When Nawaz's character is imprisoned and hospitalized, he visualizes the world outside him. He wants to get out and once again belong in the outside world. That is what those shots were about. If you think that's indulgence, Ashim has an answer for you. For him, a Salman Khan film is indulgence. A 50 year old playing a 25 year old romancing a 20 year old on screen - that's indulgence. 

Below is the transcript of a brief chat I had later with him on Twitter. (Thanks to @misslovelyfilm)

MF: When did the idea of Miss Lovely first come to you?

AA: I've had this idea for almost ten years. I just couldn't get finance earlier until I made my first film "John & Jane" which was the first Indian film to be sold to HBO. That made things easier

MF: Were Nawaz and Niharika Singh always going to be the leads, or did you audition others as well?

AA: I didn't know them. I wanted unknown faces. Nawaz had only done small roles when we cast him. Miss Lovely is his first lead role. I screen tested 100s of people, and they were both amazing in their tests.

MF: To some extent Anil George was even better than Nawaz in the film. Where the heck did you find him?

AA: Doing street theatre in Delhi. Another totally unknown face who had never done a film. Other than Nawaz and Niharika, he's the real discovery of Miss Lovely. He's got incredible presence.

MF: What was the casting process of all the junior artists in the film? They're all so wonderfully authentic.

AA: Most of them aren't extras, they are real guys who worked in the C grade industry as actors or crew. I just wanted them in the film because they're the real deal and totally believable.

MF: Was the film always going to be the way it turned out to be, or did the script change as you shot it?

AA: In the script, the story is completely spelled out. it is more conventional but I removed a lot of that in the editing because I preferred a more open-ended quality. I wanted the mood and atmosphere to play a part in moving the story forward, more impressionistic. I didn't want to only focus on the character development and 3 act structure because that removed a lot of the mystery. For me a certain incompleteness is not indulgent. Like in real life, not everything is explained.

MF: How do you deal with the constant criticism of Miss Lovely 'not having a deep enough story' Is the criticism even valid?

AA: It's not surprising. I don't face this so much internationally, but in India we are used to the story being the most important facet of cinema. Our cinema tradition comes from theatre. We rarely make films with atmosphere. For me cinema is about images as much as it is about story. I like that.

MF: How did you get your hands on the vintage 80's stuff, like the Weston C90 cassette, the TV sets and the yellow Yezdi?

AA: Mostly we emptied peoples houses and we hit up collectors of 80s memorabilia. I grew up in that era so I was very clear about what I needed - it was just a matter of finding things that weren't too damaged.

MF: What was the Censor board’s first reaction upon seeing Miss Lovely, and what finally convinced them to have just 4 cuts?

AA: They were fairly scandalized because they hadn't seen an Indian film like it. We were asked for a lot of cuts at first. But I went back to them for a year, we had multiple reviews, I kept bugging them until they reduced the cuts. They liked the movie and knew it wasn't an exploitation film, which helped.

MF: What, in your opinion, is the state of filmmaking in India? Are we progressing or regressing? Is the future bright for indie films?

AA: It's an exciting time because filmmakers are energized about cinema again. It's not just about 200 cr films. Smaller, more personal films are releasing more often. I'm hopeful.

MF: Given a budget of 100 cr, free reign and complete creative control, what sort of film would you make next? 

AA: 100cr and free reign are two words that can't co-exist! But if they did, I'd make a twisted remake of Mithun's Suraksha (Gun Master G9).

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