The Indian film industry produces more than the glitz of Bollywood musicals. It has a sordid underbelly, too: the underground world of sex horror films.
Director Ashim Ahluwalia wanted to capture that reality, but had to turn to fiction to do it.
The new film Miss Lovely follows two brothers who produce soft-core porn in the 1980s, shooting in one-hour hotels and racing to keep one step ahead of the cops who would shut them down. Pornography is illegal in India; getting caught means a minimum of three years in jail, with no option of bail.
Initially, Ahluwalia wanted to make a documentary. He spent a year and a half researching and talking with actors and directors. After putting in that time, no one would agree to talk to him on camera.
"Mainstream films barely show a kiss on screen, so the fact that these people were making these pornographic films — nobody felt comfortable to actually appear and tell me the same stories that they were telling me the night before when we were drinking in a bar," he tells NPR's Arun Rath.
Ahluwalia took the research material he'd collected and put it into a semi-fictional form, set in the mid-'80s to protect the identity of the people who'd talk to him.
But he worked to preserve an aged, veritae feel, shooting on expired film stock for a murky look on screen. And, as it turns out, some of the real-life actors and directors who wouldn't be interviewed for a documentary were happy to play extras and other roles in the film. Ahluwalia says that brought "a real authenticity to the project."
On the role of pornographic films in India
We brag about making 900 films a year, but what most people don't realize is that about 750 of those films, especially up to the late '90s, were C-grade films — sex horror or bandit films that were essentially sexually explicit. And I was very interested in these lower depths of the industry because it just seemed like no one was talking about this.
On getting C-grade films into Indian cinemas
What they would do is they would make a film, which would be, say, two hours long — it would be a horror film or it would be a bandit film. What most people didn't realize is that when they were shooting the feature, they were also shooting what was called the "bits reels," these pornographic sections. ... They would hold these back, send the film — the rest of the film — to the censors, which would have nothing in it. And then when that stuff came back, these bits reels would be interspersed directly into the film in the projection booth. So it's a very odd way of distributing, but this is how pornographic films have been distributed in India since the '20s.
On getting Miss Lovely approved for release in India
To be honest, I never thought it would release in India. I just thought it's an interesting exercise for me to see what [the censor board would ask] me to cut. The first round they asked me to make 157 cuts. ... I didn't have a release schedule; I just kept going back, and I went back about four or five times over the course of a year. I turned into a sort of very persuasive, almost irritating sort of lawyer figure ...
I think the thing that nailed it was that I said that the film is really very much about the women. The women get out in the end; they don't allow themselves to be dominated by men. You never see that in Hindi cinema, and one of the women on the board said she felt that that was true and that really switched the whole thing in our favor. So, we did get through with very few cuts, some blurs and the film released in 400 cinemas in India, and it was kind of incredible.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. If I say Indian movies, I bet, right away, you think about the Bollywood would musical. You know, those lavish, beautiful productions that last as long as a German opera and feature singing and dancing that manages to be sexy and chaste at this time. Well, I want to introduce you to an Indian production that will turn your expectations inside out. In his new feature, "Miss Lovely," director Ashim Ahluwalia exposes the Bollywood's sordid underbelly.
ASHIM AHLUWALIA: We brag about making 900 films a year. But what most people don't realize is that about 750 of those films, especially up to the late '90s, were C-grade films. Sex, horror or bandit films that were essentially sexually explicit. And I was very interested in these lower depths of the industry because it just seemed like no one was talking about this.
RATH: "Miss Lovely" follows two brothers who produce softcore porn in the 1980s shooting in one-hour hotels and racing to keep one step ahead of the cops, who would shut them down. Ashim Ahluwalia initially wanted to make a documentary about this part of the industry.
AHLUWALIA: I spent about a year and a half trying to research that really got access to a space that I think very few people knew about. What unfortunately happened is after a year and a half of doing this research, nobody really wanted to be on camera because it's illegal. And, you know, it's me being quite naive about the repercussions of this. Pornography in India - it's a minimum of three years in jail. It's non-bailable. Mainstream films barely show a kiss on screen. So the fact that these people are making pornographic films - nobody felt comfortable to actually appear and tell me the same stories that they were telling me the night before when we were drinking in a bar. What I did was essentially take the stuff and put it in a semi-fictional form, set it in the mid-80s just to protect the identities of the people who told me these stories. So all of that material kind of worked it's way back, and that became the basis of the script for "Miss Lovely."
RATH: And in terms of the film, how "Miss Lovely" looks - it retains - it's got a very kind of verite feel. It almost feels like a documentary.
AHLUWALIA: Yeah. The irony is that lot of the industry people that refused to be in my documentary - when I was ready to make the fiction film, they were more than happy to play themselves. And they said, oh, this is a real movie. This is fine. We'll do this. And what that brought was a real authenticity to the project.
RATH: Yeah. And even deeper than that - with that authenticity, there's a quality to this film. I almost wonder, was this shot on film stock from the time? It seemed like it was actually produced in the '80s.
AHLUWALIA: You know, in the '80s, we didn't have Kodak film stock in India. We had a - we had a very socialist stock that we made called Indu (ph), and it had a very particular look. And I was really trying to look for that feeling, that sort of texture that the stock brought. What we did was we used a lot of expired film stock and shot on that. So it had a kind of murky quality, but at the time, really helped in making it, as in most of it, as it is.
RATH: You mentioned these films are illegal. They're not like - there were exploitation films in America, but they didn't have the police raiding them the way that they did in India. How did they keep going?
AHLUWALIA: What they would do is that they would make a film, which would be, say, two hours long. It would be a horror film, or it would be a bandit film. What most people didn't realize is that when they were shooting the feature, they were also shooting what was called the bits reels - these pornographic sections.
RATH: Naughty bits.
AHLUWALIA: The naughty bits, but they were pretty naughty.
AHLUWALIA: And the thing is that they would hold these back, send the film - the rest of the film to the censors, which would have nothing in it. And then when that stuff came back, these bits reels be interspersed directly into the film in the projection booth.
RATH: So in spite of the subject matter we've been discussing, this film has got past the censor board in India. Did you splice out the naughty bits?
AHLUWALIA: (Laughing) The first thing, when we submitted it to the censors - when the distributors submitted this to the censors, the first question they asked was are sure you want to go through this process? To be honest, I never thought it would ever release India. I just thought, it's an interesting exercise for me to see what they asked me to cut. The first round, they asked me to 157 cuts. The amazing thing is that there's a loop hole in the Indian censorship law, which means that you can keep reviewing a film endlessly. And most people, because of commercial considerations - when they make a film, they already have a preset release date. So then they have to kind of take whatever's, you know, been offered by the censor board and then cut those bits. But myself - I didn't have a release schedule. I just kept going back, and I went back about four or five times over the course of a year. I turned into sort of a very persuasive, almost irritating sort of lawyer figure, and I just kept going back. I think that the thing that nailed it was that I said that the film is really, very much about women. The women get out in the end. They don't allow themselves to be dominated by the men. You never see this in Hindi cinema. And one of the women on the board said that she felt that that was true. And that really switched the whole thing in our favor. So we did get through with very few cuts, some blurs. And the film released in 400 cinemas in India, and it was kind of incredible.
RATH: And given the ways in which you're breaking convention, how has it been received in India?
AHLUWALIA: You know, it had already been to Canada. It was in Toronto. It was in Rotterdam. So it had already gone out. And sometimes Indians can get quite upset if you seem to be showing the bad side of India to the global public. And so I was actually quite frightened when the film came out. And I was really, really pleasantly surprised at the support we got. We got incredible reviews. There was a real rallying behind the film. You know, there was a lot of people discussing that - you know, the box office we were the most popular film that week, which is - you know, it still blows my mind, actually.
RATH: Ashim Ahluwalia is the director of the film, "Miss Lovely," which is out now in New York and Los Angeles and other select theaters. He joined me from our studios in New York. Thank you so much.
AHLUWALIA: Thanks so much, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.