Ashim Ahluwalia is the award-winning filmmaker of 2012’s Miss Lovely, his debut feature on which he served as writer, director, producer, and general Jack-of-all-Trades. Miss Lovely, his second full-length film following the 2005 documentary John & Jane, generated significant international acclaim after its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Now, from February 23 to March 9, 2013, Mr. Ahluwalia is the San Francisco Film Society’s (http://www.sffs.org/content.aspx?catid=938&pageid=3392&TitleId=air-lovely) Artist-in-Residence, and is presenting his film Miss Lovely on February 28 in San Francisco. Mr. Ahluwalia spoke with CineMalin: Film Commentary’s Sean Malin to discuss his relationship to experimental filmmaking, inspirations in the industry, and how he came to SFFS in Spring 2013. This interview has been transcribed from audio, compressed, and edited for publication.
Sean Malin: I read somewhere in a separate interview that you studied at Bard College.
Ashim Ahluwalia: Yup.
SM: What’s so interesting about your background as a filmmaker is that it was also the focus of my studies: avant-gardist and experimental cinema. Because of that, I have to ask you a personal question – what was it like training under Stan Brakhage? And you worked with Adolphus Mekus too, right?
AA: Excellent. Yeah, I did work with him. Bard was so interesting for me because it has a film program, yes, but it’s basically an experimental film program. I hadn’t realized that; I was fresh off the boat from India thinking I had it made. But I soon recognized that I was not going to see anything with a narrative. [Films] would only be hand-painted in many different styles, a lot of optically printed stuff – a lot of stuff that dealt with the materiality of film, which was amazing. And everyone was there. There was a teacher called Peggy Ahwesh [Strange Weather, 1993] who you may not know but who did some quite radical things. She was shooting in like pixel-vision in the ‘90s, low-tech video, that sort of really interesting work. And [her work] was a significant influence on me and my filmmaking.
SM: When you refer to films centered on materiality, was that a subject you explored in your early career?
AA: Most of the stuff I made at Bard was quite experimental, a lot of it optically printed and in some cases hand-processed and handmade. But when I came back to India, I started engaging the industry more because we don’t have an experimental film community. It’s just not like the typical American avant-garde thing, you know? In a way, I had to restructure and reorganize those aesthetics to move them into a more feature film “space,” or into that documentary space. So I absorbed a lot of those ideas about filmmaking and reworked them into the way that I work [in India].
SM: If you had the option of successfully making films without narrative, would you totally erase narratives from your films?
AA: No, not totally, because I’ve always liked – – I’ve always been intrigued by this European avant-gardism, which is always sorta narrative. I’m interested in the idea of genre and “the popular,” and sort of taking the idea of “the popular” to break it down and reconstruct it. That’s always been an aspect of my work because I don’t come from the American avant-garde tradition, which was so dominated by the idea of Hollywood. Avant-garde film was always an escape from this very American tyranny of narrative. But I don’t have that same relationship to narrative – I’m just not that freaked out by it. I actually kind of like it. Narrative in India is a kind of mythology, and it can be so abstract. It can be as abstract as a hand-painted film. Indian film can have narratives within narratives within narratives – it just becomes abstract, really.
SM: I agree, but I don’t think it’s just a fear of tyranny. In the American experimental tradition, there’s this idea that the further you break from narrative, the more successful you become and the more acclaimed your film. If you do not get far enough away from narrative…Brakhage, the Godfather of Avant-Garde cinema, versus [George] Kuchar, for example.
AA: Yes, exactly right.
SM: But let’s return to India as a support for your filmmaking: can you explain a bit about the production process on Miss Lovely? How did you get the money to finance it considering it was not Bollywood?
AA: Well, I should clarify, because actually, the Indian film industry is not a support system for me at all. It’s just the place that I work, my environment. Having said that, because [India] is an environment that is primarily like Hollywood in the 1940s – based on a studio system, very star-driven, it’s song-and-dance – even the independent films come from the big studios’ little cousins, like in America. Those studios put out the indie films which are still the romantic comedy, small-budget versions of the same thing. All the aesthetics are pretty similar, and yet, at the same time, India does not have an experimental film tradition. So I’m stuck with this weird Bard education, and having watched a lot of Kuchar and people like that, and then coming back. Miss Lovely is a way of really bridging all those gaps, in a way. It’s really low-end, C-grade, trash cinema, which I find great affinity with.
SM: You think that Miss Lovely is C-grade cinema, or that it is about C-grade cinema?
AA: Not Miss Lovely itself, but the genre space that it occupies. Miss Lovely is set in that universe because that was the closest affinity I could in India to that experimental culture. Putting the film together took forever. It took me three years to raise the money, and it’s a co-production. It has French money, it has Japanese money, it has some Indian money, it has a little bit of American money. It was just a really difficult job putting all that money together. It only happened because I made a documentary earlier [2005’s John & Jane.] Also, I’m stuck between a lot of dichotomies, like this mainstream film thing or the other option, in India, which is what we call a Parallel Film tradition, which is more centered on rural narratives. It’s a bit like Iranian Cinema, or maybe more like African Cinema; it looks a lot to France and Europe for finance to put out these colonial tropes of “poor Indian boy,” that kind of shit which I really hate. So I’m stuck between that financing system or the make-yourself-dance Bollywood film – but [Miss Lovely] is about trying to find a new space.
SM: Has Miss Lovely found a welcoming berth in all those countries that helped to finance it? Have you been able to find audiences outside the European arthouse scheme?
AA: Yeah, I think it is really interesting that it has this kind of pulpy-horror, midnight movie thing —
SM: I have to say that it looked like an exact hybrid of two things to me. It has the sub-art Bollywood visuals of Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Boyle) mixed with, like, Suspiria (1977, Argento), all those Dario Argento colors. During the entire course of the film, I was registering these horror tropes without being afraid. You know, I get frightened quite easily, but I found myself recognizing the imagery and instead, being pulled straight in. I’m not sure how to describe that technique or its effect…
AA: Yeah, yeah, it is a bit like all of that, and there’s kind of an Irma Vep (1996, Assayas) thing. It is a bit of abstract, art house kind of version of a horror film. Miss Lovely just has so many different things going on. I think that comes from the comfort I got from Bard, being comfortable not sitting with genre or in any sort of category. It becomes documentary at times, and pulpy at times, almost melodrama sometimes. I’m okay with this cross-pollinated, hybrid thing, you know?
SM: You were still able to raise money without using previously successful Indian actors. That’s rare in India.
AA: Oh, very rare. I think John & Jane made it much easier for people to trust that I could have a potential international audience of some kind. We did actually manage to sell the film – it has a theatrical run in many of the countries that gave us money. Also, because it was at Cannes, that helped. *Laughs* That made a big enough difference that I could raise the finishing money for it. It wasn’t even such an expensive film, under a million U.S., but it still took three years. That’s just the way I work: I’ll get some money, I’ll shoot something, run out, get some more money, and shoot some more.
SM: How do you even get your money? What was your work background before you made John & Jane or Miss Lovely?
AA: After Bard, I came back to India and tried to set up a production company. And I also do commercials as my bread-and-butter thing. That usually allows me enough money to get some time to work on a project like this.
SM: Any American television commercials?
AA: No, but I’ve been asked to, but not really. I just do as many as I need to to get a film off the ground, and then whenever I have no more money, I go back.
SM: It is funny you should say that because that is a far more common approach to filmmaking in the American tradition than in nearly any other world culture. The financial relationship to film in this country means that someone like David Fincher or Michel Gondry makes their film for a pittance, using money they’ve earned on music videos or commercials. What keeps you from saying yes to the American commercials?
AA: I think the trick with commercials is that you have to be careful not to get caught up in it. It can become something you get really greedy about. It takes quite a lot of madness to put an interesting film together well, and some of that madness can be milked out of you if you’re just, you know…You see this happening to a lot of filmmakers, they get caught up doing a lot of commercials or doing a really shitty commercial film they think will allow to go back to what they really wanted to do. And then, of course, they never go back to doing that and they’re still talking about the first film they made twenty-five years ago. I am wary of that trap. I think another thing in common between India and the States is that there’s very little money available for filmmaking from the government. The budget for cinema just doesn’t exist for it as a cultural trope, cinema is just seen as entertainment. That whole system of economics makes it so that you almost have to engage with the commercial aspect of filmmaking, whereas in France or Japan you just make something small, get the money somehow, and if not, get the state to finish it off for you.
SM: Have you considered selling any scripts or producing the work of another filmmaker to earn something?
AA: The truth is it just takes so long to put the films together that I don’t even work with so much of a script. By the time I shoot anything, it’s so completely different than any script I have written. Already it’s a highly experimental way of making films that work. Because my scripts take so long, it’s sort of like I write a novel, and then by the time we’re shooting half of it has been ripped out. I edit my work myself, I’m very involved with the sound…it just takes so much out of me that I think if I started giving people other stuff, I would just never make a film.
SM: Were you trained in production techniques when you were at Bard, like sound design [sound editor and music supervisor on Miss Lovely] and script editing?
AA: No! No, it’s really weird and I don’t know where it came from. Actually I think the sound editing comes a lot from DJ culture because I used to DJ a little bit and make a little bit of electronic music. I would always use a lot of gear, and I guess that’s where the sound thing came from. Bard just did not believe in industry filmmaking – you had to do everything yourself – so it was all Bolex shooting and editing and splicing on celluloid. You know, everyone still makes fun of me because I now make these much bigger films and yet I still treat them like I made them with my own hands, cutting and switching, and that’s kind of unheard of here, or in most parts of the world. That I would cut the thing, sound design the thing, get involved with the art direction, write the thing; it’s just a stupid style of working, but I just love that and can’t do it any other way.
SM: When I consider what I know about the Indian filmmaking system, I think you must feel like an anomaly, if not a total outsider.
AA: Totally. It is beyond description – they just do not understand what to do with me. It’s funny, it’s really funny. I don’t fit the mold of the arthouse filmmaker, which they want to put me in. I’m actually quite verbal and quite critical about the arthouse movement here because a lot of it is so dependent on this kind of 19th century colonial financing methodology. We’re stuck in the loop of feeding the European image of India and then getting money in turn for that. It’s just annoying to watch that happen. I can’t relate to that at all. I don’t fit. But I think what’s interesting is that there’s now space for a new case study.
SM: In Indian film, specifically?
AA: Yes, there’s definitely a new space.