Interview With Ashim Ahluwalia, Part 2 – San Francisco Film Society’s Spring 2013 Artist-in-Residence

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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 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: Who in the Indian filmmaking system did you look to or would you for inspiration in making your film, or touching on those Bollywood aesthetics, who didn’t bother you in some way?

Ashim Ahluwalia: The funny thing is that I did not even look much at Indian film; I looked a lot at Japanese Cinema. I am hugely influenced by Japanese film, especially filmmakers from the New Wave, like Nagisa Oshima, [Shohei] Imamura, Seijun Suzuki. A lot of these guys in Japan in the ‘60s were working within the studio system, making their teenage summer films that they did not want to make, right? It’s a lot like what I do, making these commercials that I don’t really want to make…But these guys would make something very avant-garde with that teenage summer film, and even though it was meant to be something, it was an experiment in something else. I also think that’s translated to some newer influences on guys working in Asia, like Park Chan-wook or Takashi Miike. You’re not sure what they are: is this genre cinema? Is it arthouse stuff? Is it pop? Early Wong Kar Wai is pretty similar to this idea. I’m interested in this, “What is it?” question.

SM: Semblances to both filmmakers’ work are in Miss Lovely more strongly than you may realize. At Sundance this year, I saw Park’s Stoker (2013), which has so many aural and visual similarities to your film.  Which beggars this question for me: do you also draw from any visual artists? Your visual work has been seen in European biennales, modern art galleries, et cetera.

AA: Not so much visual art, no. But weirdly, a lot of writing – early American pulp, like Jim Thompson, for example. Throwaway stuff that is just now happening to be rediscovered. Dimestore material that suddenly acquires a new poetic meaning even though it’s not really art culture nor pop culture, outsider art. I’m engaged by this idea of the lonely nightwatchman’s art.

SM: That sounds exactly like a description of your film in relationship to its genre – not exactly noir, not exactly pulp.

AA: Yeah, I fought for that a lot, and it was a really hard fight. People want so badly to force you into categories. John & Jane is similar because it’s a documentary, but it’s science-fiction, and that seems to annoy a lot of people and unsettle them.

SM: So what’s a specific example of that fight in Miss Lovely?

AA: The love triangle narrative with the two brothers and the girl makes people crave resolution. People want to know what happens with this girl and want badly to close that story. I had a lot of producer pressure to finish the story, dwell on the story, like “don’t digress! Don’t get so elliptical! Who is she?” But the whole point is to drop that recognition the audience inherently has with this kind of story. It’s meant to be a post-cinematic pastiche, where you subconsciously recognize this story with the brothers already and you want it to close, but I refused to do that. That pissed people off…it can make raising money difficult because you raise money based on a film’s logline. I would say, “my film is a Tarantino-like genre film, my film is a Coen Brothers-like dark comedy on whatever.” But if the whole point is not situate your film along those lines, it becomes more difficult to sell. 

SM: For a filmmaker in India, there are a lot of trappings you might find yourself in, especially with Bollywood-type visuals or storytelling. Maybe too much high-key lighting, maybe melodrama, or perhaps musical scenes. How actively did you work to remove those?

AA: One of the ideas I have always had is that if I ever made a film in Hindi, which was set in the underbelly of the Bollywood industry, it would have to end with a song. Because it would be so far from actual Bollywood, [a song] would really upset an art-house audience, in India especially, because that’s just wrong, you can’t do that.

SM: It is a violation of that film space.

AA: Instead I just veered towards deep melodrama, very consciously Bollywood but also related to a sort of Douglas Sirk-style. The two brothers trope in Bollywood is very common – in the ‘70s and ‘80s, every other film had two brothers. One was dominant, the other submissive; one was the good guy, the other bad; one as a cop, and the other, a criminal. Somehow they would always come together and be brothers again. But unlike Bollywood, Miss Lovely features that trope and then breaks it apart with the brothers. I was so conscious of those themes that I think the film speaks more to their close deconstruction than to their use. It’s not a tribute to Bollywood.

SM: Did the actors you worked with ever have trouble with the fact that the film is so outside of any art-house filmmaking scheme?

AA: They did not understand what was happening for most of the shoot. A lot of the stuff that’s in the actual film is outtakes, which is a technique that comes from documentary. There’s a sequence where the younger brother [Sonu, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui] slaps the [pornographic film] director and a fight breaks out. That was actually real – they just started fighting because it was really hot in the room. We used a lot of takes where people had forgotten their lines, like the brothers lying on their beds sweating. It was the elder brother’s [Vicky, played by Anil George] first day and he couldn’t remember his lines and was very frustrated. So I used those moments without dialogue and it worked much better.

SM: As a bit of an experimentalist, how well do you work with actors? Do you work as easily with them as with sound design? I think it is even more difficult to be trained to work with actors than with editing tools. And no offense to the stars of your film, of course.

AA: No, I don’t like working with actors at all and that is not a personal thing. I just do not like the idea of “acting.” I think acting is theatrical rather than filmic; it’s too much about the individual and their presence. I veer towards that [Robert] Bressonian thing, where I want them more as an object than as an individual. That’s a major fight in India because these actors, you know, show up and you can’t get them to stop acting. That’s their job and it is what they do. So I almost have to lie to them! I would do a lot of pre-roll, for example, where I’d call “Action!” and then just roll the camera while someone was just sitting or waiting for their lighting to be set up. There’s a lot of trickery where I had them say lines that I knew I would never use, or act when the camera was not even on. To me, there’s a conflict: you, as a filmmaker, want the film to be cinematic, and they want it to be theater.

SM: Let’s talk about sexuality in the film. Did the actors struggle with what they saw as perhaps graphic or gratuitous sexuality?

AA: Even though the film is not actually explicit, that’s of course a major issue in Indian film. Sex is such a big thing. They have such a strict censorship code – you can’t even show a screen kiss. We are only now going into theatrical distribution in India and Miss Lovely is going through the censorship process, which is extremely complicated. They want me to cut a lot of stuff, and not even the stuff that’s just, like, a naked tit. It’s actually more intent-oriented, which makes it even more difficult; they can say, “This film is intended to corrupt the youth,” and make me cut stuff on that basis, but not based on a breast or a drug shot. It’s actually quite fascistic…like there’s a lot of stuff about the police in the film, the way they deal with these [brothers.] The way the police deal with them is a lot worse than what the characters have actually done, since they haven’t actually committed a crime. It’s a very hypocritical part of our society. Presently, if you’re caught shooting a porno film, it’s immediately three years in jail, it’s completely illegal. It’s almost the equivalent of killing someone in terms of the verdicts. Extremely regressive and repressed.

SM: These punishments and India’s relationship to sexuality are a major part of the film. Did you include them intentionally or are they so ingrained in your subconscious that they just popped up thematically?

AA: I would find it basically impossible to make a film that includes any scenes of sexuality without including the State. Even though the film is situated deep in that underbelly, and the characters there are quite comfortable with what they do, there is always this middle-class hypocrisy lurking just outside of that world. There’s a scene about this just at the end of the film when [Vicky] goes “back home” to this family, a wife and kids that are never really described. And the actress, Poonam [also called Pinky, played by Niharika Singh] is trying to clean up her act and is working at some travel agency. It’s this sort of return to decency, the theme of “decency,” which is a strong undercurrent in the film.

SM: Are you having issues with class representation in the censorship process at all?

AA: Oh yeah, there’s issues with class in this. There are issues with women. Women in Bollywood films are never depicted as being their own – they’re always in service to the male actor, as the wife or the girlfriend or whatever. If you have, let’s say, a sexually comfortable, open woman in an Indian film, Bollywood or independent, she usually gets shot or killed. It’s this “Vamp or Virgin” kind of thing still. But Miss Lovely has a lot of women doing whatever the fuck they want to do. They’re pretty much running the show and they go much further than most of the male characters. That’s been coming up a lot like, “Oh! How could she behave this way?” 

SM: Like smashing another woman into a wall.

AA: That kind of thing. I’ve had some criticism of that *laughs*.

SM: The relationship between carnality and violence is something that my country struggles with, too. We rip [Quentin] Tarantino to shreds for his depictions of violence, even today. These directors still struggle to succeed against these complaints. Do you ever worry you won’t be able to theatrically succeed or find an audience when you include those themes?

AA: Nah, I really don’t care. I don’t make enough. Like I said, I’m lucky that way because I can make a commercial and make a living. It’s the modern equivalent of an experimental filmmaker having a teaching job at Bard to feed his or her family. That way they can make whatever they want and still go back to teaching. So I always have this sort of safety blanket. But you know, the minute I start depending 100% on my films for my career, I’m seriously fucked. Also, I never have to worry about making a film that fits into this genre again because I was raised with this experimental tradition. I could never make a film that was operating in this same genre or group of genres again, I just couldn’t. Unlike Tarantino, for example – and I love that he loves this sort of B-movie group – my enjoyment of B-movies is not so much an obsession as it is an interest in that group at this moment in film history.

SM: What you’re saying sounds less to me like Tarantino and more like [Steven] Soderbergh – this idea of genre reinvention, placing your film squarely into a genre pocket and then expanding on those representations in your work. Eco-thrillers [in Contagion, 2011] or action [in Haywire, 2012] start to actually break through genre. When you get asked to put your movies squarely into one of these pockets, will that be the indication that it’s time to hang up the gloves?

AA: It’s already happened. Now I am getting asked to do even more commercials of the same kind. Like, “Okay – get rid of that art-house stuff and just do a thriller!” That’s the kind of stuff I’m wary of. Your films have to have no form – it can’t just be homage. It has to be forwardly interesting. I can’t repeat form.

SM: Okay, now, help me trace the narrative of you coming to be the San Francisco Film Society’s Artist-in-Residence.

AA: It is a bit random. I think what happened was that when we were looking for money [for Miss Lovely], we got some from the Global Film Initiative. GFI, if you don’t know them, is a really interesting organization. They don’t have a huge amount of money, but they give you development money for international projects that look to be outside of what could ever get made in the home countries. They gave us some very early seed money. A few of the people at GFI, like Susan [Weeks Coulter, Chair of the Board of Directors] are based in San Francisco. So, for them, it was a really big thing when the film went to Cannes [for the Cannes Film Festival] and also Toronto [for the 2012 Toronto Film Festival]. It’s a small film, but it has really traveled, and [GFI] has had a really good run with it. My point when I asked for the money was — I said, “You’re not going to give me the money because I’m not making a rural village narrative. You’re not going to give me the money. I’m not going to get it. I don’t even know why I’m talking to you. I’m making a film about people who are still victimized – they’re just victimized in ways that don’t really fit your category.” And they responded to that saying, “You know, you’re probably right. If you hadn’t put it in those terms, we probably wouldn’t have given you the money.” I think they were very brave in choosing our film because it doesn’t fit many of the tropes of the Indian outsider model or the films from South India. So I believe they suggested my name to the Film Society because their residency is international. And some of those guys had seen the film and thought it was interesting… 

SM: And then what? They just send you a sweet e-mail?

AA: They said they wanted to see John & Jane, and since that had been at the New Directors/New Films [Festival 2006] at the Lincoln Center, the film got quite a lot of play in the States. It was actually bought by HBO Films and did have some kind of miniature New York theatrical run. Also, that film is about a kind of Jean Baudrillard vision of America in the future. So they did see that and thought – also, partly I think because I went to Bard – they thought my more experimental background, which San Francisco has a real link to, suited it.

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