Two brothers produce sleazy horror films in the mid-1980s.

Uneven Bombay-based drama nails authenticity.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Set in the Bombay of the mid-1980s, Miss Lovely looks at the erotic underbelly of the monolith that is the Indian film industry. This is the first fiction film from writer/director Ashim Ahluwalla, who cut his teeth on documentaries. His background is important in that it clearly informs Ahluwalla’s creative choices which work both for and against his film.

Ahluwalla seduces the audience into believing it is watching a document of the times

One choice is evident from the opening centring on an op-art spiral with a warm if fuzzy appearance of a 1970s film (or the 1980s if you were living in India). This opening actually turns out to be a (porn) film within the film, but as Ahluwalla moves on to his main story, Miss Lovely continues with film stock lit with a similarly alluring softness.

Relying on the technology of the time to tell the story means that there are no awkward – or condescending – jumps between the sharper – often digital – images of contemporary cinema and the misty view of soft focus film. Going beyond technological nostalgia, Ahluwalla seduces the audience into believing it is watching a document of the times.

At the centre of the story is naïve filmmaker Sonu (Nawazuddin Siddiqul) who works with his aggressive brother Vicky (Anil George) – known as the Duggal Brothers – in India’s porn industry. The pair illicitly tours some lascivious reels in provincial cinemas in order to make some extra money, but mostly they just raise the ire of the gang boss who is bankrolling their filmmaking operation and his own theatres in Bombay. From the outset, Sonu wants to move on to making a legitimate romantic film. While Vicky takes care of the 'business’, Sonu scouts for on-screen talent and stumbles across a dancer called Pinky (Niharika Singh), who appears as chaste off-screen as she is desirable on-camera. To get money to pay for a respectable screenwriter to write a script based on his scenario, Sonu has to pull some scams. Along the way, he makes the fatal mistake of falling for his muse.

With some of the Duggal Brothers’ projects featuring rubber monsters sexually menacing women, their work resembles some ugly grindhouse pictures rather than pornography’s so-called classics. The actual drama of Miss Lovely recalls – for good and bad – the improvisations of John Cassavetes’ films. Miss Lovely is hampered by some jerky narrative transitions, but on the upside, the improvising actors appear feel so immersed in their roles that the authenticity is undeniable even when the plot veers into confusion.

Despite the incredulous innocence of his character in amongst the sleazy milieu, Nawazuddin Siddiqul makes Sonu convincing. His final cathartic confrontation with reality will have, for those who persevere, substantial emotional impact.

Despite the film’s failings, Ahluwalla can take comfort that his sales agent Fortissimo tend to stick with their discoveries. Another comparison worth making is with early Wong Kar-wai (Fortissimo, after all, is the house that Wong built), particularly the ellipses of Days of Being Wild. Ahluwalla is not as arty as the Shanghai-born auteur but Miss Lovely has a similar sense of an emerging developing artist. There may be masterpieces yet to come.