‘The cynicism of the C-grade filmmakers matched mine’

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Ashim Ahluwalia | 41 Director
Ashim Ahluwalia | 41 | Director
Photo: Ankit Agrawal

What led you to make a film on C-grade cinema?

I remember watching these films as a frustrated adolescent in run-down cinema halls in Mumbai. It was the only way one could see any kind of sexual content. However, as I grew up, I had forgotten about the existence of these films, but when I came back to Mumbai, seeing posters of C-grade films reminded me of the existence of this space. At the same time, I was also quite disillusioned with the idea of finding my space in Bollywood because my sensibilities were very different. I could not accept the idea that a star or a music director is more important than the film. The directors of C-grade films, on the other hand, seemed to work like independent filmmakers and that is what pushed me to explore this space. I thought of doing a documentary on how sex horror films are made, but never got around to making it. I spent a year and half interacting with directors, actors and actresses from the industry but when it came to getting these people to speak on camera, nobody agreed. I was stuck with all this content. So later, I decided to use all this material to write a screenplay that was set in the mid-’80s.

In what ways did watching this gritty, murky universe closely affect you at a personal level?

I am a curious person and I interact with a wide range of people — from international filmmakers to an old lady who sells peanuts outside my house. So, I was never traumatised by these interactions. However, spending time in this space that was not my own eradicated any sense of parody that most people tend to have about people who work in the C-grade industry. It brought in a sense of compassion and helped me understand the complexity of their lives. For example, a C-grade film actress is not just that anymore. You see her as a mother, a daughter, somebody who once aspired to make it big as an actress or somebody who had to prostitute herself. You can’t make heroes or villains out of your characters. The whole texture becomes much more complex.

I also felt a sense of claustrophobia. I was an “English type”, that’s what they called me. Somewhere, in the process of making the documentary, when I hung around talking to these people, I felt like the space became more antagonistic towards me. People were no longer friendly. They said, “We told you that we don’t want to be on camera, why are you asking us twice?” I got a sense that I was being too dominating. But at the same time, I felt annoyed. I had spent over a year and a half with these people but now I wanted to take something from them. At one point, I also felt I was being a target for extortion. I felt like I was being followed, I’d get calls from random numbers. Once, an actress called me and asked me to join her at her hotel and I was completely perplexed because there was no connection between us. It seemed like there were three other people in the room and she was being asked to call me. The situation seemed threatening and that’s when I decided to get out.

There is nothing more ironic than writing a screenplay set in the C-grade film industry because they don’t have one. What were the challenges?

The biggest irony was that a C-grade film could have been made in the amount of time it took me to put down three pages of screenplay for the film. However, I wasn’t trying to emulate that process. I was just trying to create that atmosphere. It was quite flattering when someone once told me, “I feel like I need to bathe. I feel like I have been in this humid space, in those dank hotels.” That was such a compliment because it takes a lot to create that kind of world, to create that atmosphere in a space where people are in costume and yet you get that sense of authenticity.

What is your take on the ‘indie’ film scene in India?

I think it doesn’t mean anything. ‘Indie film’ or ‘New Wave’ seem to be just terms used for any film that doesn’t have a Rs 200 crore box office return. These terms don’t have any relevance because they come from certain terms elsewhere where they had a kind of unity. For example, if you have six filmmakers making a certain type of film formally, then that becomes a new wave. But six filmmakers making a film that is different from Bollywood does not make it a new wave.

The term probably exists because these are early days of a new kind of cinema in India. However, I won’t be as pessimistic about the situation as I was two years ago when this film was in Cannes. Back then, I never thought that there could be a release for a film like Miss Lovely. The fact that it is happening shows that there is a space for it that now exists.

Were there any lessons to take away from watching the C-grade film industry so closely?

The confidence of being strong in the space that you have and not always feeling left out because there is something else happening outside. The actors and filmmakers of this industry didn’t give a f*** about the A-grade film industry. They didn’t care about popularity or fame in the way that most people do. This is probably because they are broken, have struggled and it all seemed like one big fantasy. This cynicism matched mine. They had a hardened outlook towards Bollywood and glamour. All of them had worked as extras or in some low-end capacity, but they were very confident of the space that they had. Sapna, an actress I worked with, once told me, “I’d rather be a queen in my space than stand behind Aishwarya Rai in hers.” That was beautiful and it helped me strengthen my belief in my work.

How did you go about helping the cast understand the kind of space you were creating in your film?

That’s is always a challenge and I believe that the first hurdle in making a film is convincing the cast and crew that you are not completely crazy. Most of the actresses that I approached in 2009 declined my offer. One of them even threatened to file an FIR against the casting director for sending such a script. It was obvious that she hadn’t even read it carefully, but by and large people did not understand the difference between a sex film and a film that was set in sex-horror film industry of the 1980s. So, conveying the idea that I was making a film set in a particular space to mainstream actors was the biggest challenge. But once they got it, it was easy to switch from one space to another while making the film.

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