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Ashim Ahluwalia | Radical raunch

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2014 Ashim Ahluwalia

Ashim Ahluwalia’s acclaimed debut feature Miss Lovely is a tribute to the C-movie circuit—an unregulated, unpredictable and conventionally unacceptable realm that is also experimental, exciting and more challenging than mainstream or art-house cinema, argues the film-maker in an edited excerpt from Uncontrolled Cinema: The World Of Miss Lovely (Onlab, forthcoming):

One of the first C movies I saw was made by two men with missing surnames: Vicky (the director, who also inspired the name of my protagonist in Miss Lovely) and Suleiman (the producer). The film, Band Kamre Mein (Behind Closed Doors), is the tale of a freshly married woman called Seema. Eager to lose her virginity, she is shattered to find her new husband impotent. Eventually collapsing into a nervous wreck, Seema sweats her way through a series of seductions of family members who include her husband’s nephew Ravi. More seductions follow—one involving a male prostitute, and finally the icing on the cake: a lesbian liaison with Rosy, the sexy servant. Hallucinating about a sex potion that can make all her fantasies come true, Seema is left with no choice but to bump off her tiresome husband with a toy gun. A sprawling mess of a film, it left me with the desire to watch a hundred more.

The next thing I chanced upon, Ramesh Lakhiani’s Khopdi (The Skull), offered a twist on the same theme by adding rubber monsters to the sex-starved landscape. I couldn’t believe these films could get weirder, but they did. Unlike B movies that actually tried to follow through with a cohesive storyline, C movies never cared to do so. They were concocted to deliver cheap titillation to a sexually starved audience of working-class males. And yet, at least in the early days of Indian exploitation cinema, they weren’t hard-core pornography either. For decades, C-grade cinema and pornographic films followed separate paths, eventually marrying in the fleapits of India in the early 1980s.

In C-grade cinema, producers would bypass the censors by never including explicit material in the main film. Even if censors demanded cuts it would have no effect on the outcome, for the forbidden reels, known in Bombay as “bits”, would make it directly to the projection booth of the cinema at night, carried by hand or on a bicycle. Here these sex reels would be spliced back into the main film, often in a random spot. So in the middle of a tragic death scene, it wouldn’t be unusual to suddenly have an eleven-minute female masturbation sequence.

http://youtu.be/dK6RPscMslAFrom the 1930s to the 1960s, “bits” reels were intermixed with any trash picture, popping up in the middle of Dara Singh wrestling movies, for example, and often containing full-frontal nudity. In the 1970s, these reels would also come to include explicit sexual activity stolen from scratchy Swedish or German blue films. By the early 1980s, however, Indian producers were no longer smuggling in European porn; they were very confidently shooting their own.

Besides sex-horror films, several sub-genres were spawned by the C-grade industry, such as the female daku (bandit) picture, the tribal exploitation film, the domestic lesbian tragedy and the impotent husband melodrama. The most intriguing, however, was the medical film. In movies such as I.V. Sasi’s Teen Love & Sex (1982) and anonymous fare such as Lady Doctor, Gupt Gyan and Birth of a Baby, audiences were shown graphic footage of childbirth and venereal diseases. The basic idea behind these films cloaked in pseudo-science was to allow the mostly rural audience to get guilt-free peep at female genitalia. The camera would often participate like a doctor, probing the female body in the form of a medical check-up. Ghastly scenes would sometimes offer up diseased private parts for examination. Animated eggs would float across the screen, fusing with a barrage of creepy photographs and narration pinched from forgotten Italian sex education films.

It was no surprise, then, that the Indian middle class saw this as intolerable screen fare. Bollywood looked down on these films like poor, unwashed relatives that had arrived for dinner uninvited. And yet they couldn’t be dismissed because of their massive small-town viewership. Spurning the narrative weight of Bollywood, these pictures dealt in smutty, uncontrolled spectacle. They articulated what spectators truly desired—a vision sometimes deranged and scandalous, sometimes accidentally lyrical, but always dangerous if silenced and banned.

C-grade cinema is authentically marginal, a cinema of the gutter, and the missing link between Bollywood and pornography, documentary and narrative, tradition and modernity. And what appears to be simply marginal soon exposes itself to be symbolically central. Through these films we can see how Indian society struggles with outlawed subjects: eroticism, violence, female sexuality and homosexuality. If most Bollywood pictures are about the Indian ideal of sameness and the things that bring us together (family, tradition, ritual), C movies are about our differences.

In contrast to these eccentric, handmade films, Bollywood and other mainstream cinemas of the world are industrial projects of entertainment dictated by business.

The story, in the classical sense, is unimportant in the C movie. In Haiwan (1977), as in many other films of this kind, strange scenes that feel incomplete are inserted at random points throughout the film. Actors change, primary characters disappear and new characters are introduced. The C movie is spontaneous, episodic, associative and unconstrained by the rules of traditional narrative cinema. This, in the hands of a more able filmmaker, opens up all kinds of possibilities of form, not unlike those of experimental cinema. Such fractured storytelling charges a film with a strange energy, making it more unusual, more spectacular, more mysterious, and more taboo. Evoking more dream than reality, it signals the forgotten, repressed dimension of things.

Most C movies blatantly use stock music and recycled shots throughout. Shots of exteriors of buildings, thunder and lightning, breasts and thighs are shamelessly stolen from other films. Actors look into the camera while performing, breaking the illusion that conventional films construct.

Whereas the classical narrative film accentuated ‘seamlessness’, the C movie does the opposite—falling apart at the seams—reminding the audience that they are, in fact, watching a film. This offers a far more post-modern, self-conscious viewing experience than mainstream films, which feel almost old-fashioned in comparison.

This kind of cinema is full of unsteady camera work, underexposed and out-of-focus shots, and colour banding caused by poor-quality film stock. Yet, in a strange, accidental way, there is something magical about this style.

It centralises the role of the heroine (the heroes are usually sidekicks, unlike Bollywood, where the female characters are rarely significant); it displaces the natural order of middle class morality by introducing unbridled sex and violence; and it destabilises the status quo, forcing us to question many conformist tendencies that we take for granted. With a wild disregard for all rules and for the act of censorship, the C movie is no less than a cinematic mutiny.

We can see from many of these tendencies that C-grade cinema, quite unconsciously, is the one truly experimental Indian film form. Possibly, future Indian independent filmmakers could draw inspiration and energy from the collision of discourses in C-grade cinema—psychological, sexual, political, poetic, philosophical—detonating these elements into new, uncontrolled forms of cinema. Instead of making films that reach us slick and dead, we could try and break that cycle through a complete derangement of the official filmic senses. And there is no better model for that than the cheapest, trashiest films one can find.

Miss Lovely is out on DVD, National Film Development Corporation/Shemaroo Entertainment, `299.

Also available through video on demand on the website www.cinemasofindia.com

Excerpted with permission from Onlab.

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