Director Ashim Ahluwalia talks about the relevance of “Miss Lovely” and how food becomes part of horror stories

After proving to be a darling on the festival circuit, Miss Lovely is finally coming to theatres this week and director Ashim Ahluwalia is eager to know the response. “Considering that I had never expected an Indian release I think it is quite satisfying because the film is unlike what people are used to watching here in cinemas. Set in a sordid universe, it has a very dense narrative. Also, it is stylistically very different,” says Ashim as we walk into Latitude restaurant at the Mosaic in Noida.

Set in the C-grade film industry that thrived in the ’80s and early ’90s, Ashim has used Bollywood’s staple formula of two brothers and how a woman comes between them in a way which is being seen as the sign of the new wave of independent cinema emerging from India. Reflecting on the relevance of the backdrop, Ashim says the sex-horror genre succeeded because people wanted to see it. “It reflects the sexual repression that was there in the atmosphere. The other aspect is, though there was mass need for such cinema, it was deemed illegal because it was mostly pornographic. So you have had a situation where a large audience was doing something illegal and there were directors making the illegal material which put them in a category which is unique to India. They were both a criminal and a filmmaker simultaneously. For me the criminal filmmaker becomes a very interesting persona.”

Sipping ice tea on a sunny winter afternoon, Ashim, who initially wanted to make a documentary on the genre, shares that he brought back the technicians who actually worked on these films. And with them started his tryst with food items on the sets, set up at brothels and one-hour hotels. “These people used to make masks out of dough and blood from cheap ketchup. I thought, let’s recreate the era. When they managed to scare us with atta, why use latex!”

Latitude offers an eclectic mix of starters, with murgh ki champ, jaitooni macchi tikka and ajwaini tandoori jhingha getting a thumbs up from the Mumbai-bred director. “In Mumbai,” says Ashim, “we don’t really understand North Indian food. We try so hard but the results are often tragic. I don’t know what exactly it is but somehow I don’t get a decent North Indian meal. You don’t get chaat that’s not sweet, you don’t get chaat that has the right amount of tang in it. Of course you can get some nice meal at somebody’s house but even about that I am not convinced. Even the paranthas don’t taste the same.”

Not one to compromise, Ashim, a self-confessed foodie, sticks largely to fish delicacies in Mumbai. “I live in Colaba and the place gets a good supply of fresh fish.”

Talking of fresh stock, Ashim was the first one to see the potential in Nawazuddin to play the lead protagonist. “I saw a guy who has been denied a lot of opportunities and he had a lot of anger in him. He was at the bottom end of the chain and Sonu Duggal is in a way an underdog, a brother who is treated like a servant and is made to do all the dirty work and yet he is quite arrogant. He thinks there is a lot of talent in him.”

Ashim carries his penchant for detail to the kitchen. “If I find something interesting I follow the recipe with a neurotic zeal even if it is something as common as bhindi or daal. I feel it is not just about linear sequence of ingredients, it is also about rhythmic sequence that makes somebody’s bhindi extra special.”

The film is expected to question the moral code of many, and many could turn up for the wrong reasons. With murgh yakhani shorbha providing him a chance to ponder, Ashim says the director’s responsibility is to give the film the best possible birth. “After that what happens is not in anybody’s control because after that a film has its own life. On one level it is very pulpy and on the other it is very art house. It uses novelistic techniques to tell the story. It could possibly frustrate a number of viewers who are used to a linear way of storytelling where all the information is spelt out. If the independent film audience expects it to be a songless affair there is a song in the film. In a way it is very much my personality.”

Ashim admits the film pushes a lot of moral buttons. “That’s why I am excited by it being in the cinemas. It engages with issues of ethics and the role of women. Contrary to popular perception, female actors are very proactive and independent in this genre. They are sexually very independent also. They make choices. They take charge and supersede men by the end. The film plays a lot with that idea.” Right now the chef is toying with the idea of dessert. There is chocolate paan in the plate pressing a lot of different buttons on the palate at the same time.