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Cinema Scope

Just short of perfect

18th Jan 2014

Miss Lovely

Director: Ashim Ahluwalia

Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Anil George, Niharika Singh

I watched Miss Lovely at the Cannes Festival 2012, 18 months before it made its way to Indian screens, with four cuts that are more crucial than they may seem. The censors' scissors take away from the sleaziness and exploitation that were hallmarks of the horror-porn industry of the 1980s. In a story about the futility of trying to pull oneself out of the mire, these are particularly significant.

The film was initially meant to be a documentary. In researching it, Ahluwalia witnessed the shooting of a C-grade film, being made by ex-convicts in hovels and pay-by-the-hour motels. A soft porn actress had disappeared at the time, and her body would be recovered months later. No one was willing to talk about the industry, and the documentary morphed into a feature film.

Miss Lovely has you at the start. If you're an '80s kid, you know the sort of film that begins with a wavy-haired hero walking into a haunted house. Cobwebs meet over the ancient painting of a damsel. The next moment, a laughing banshee comes forth and multiplies. The reel ends, and as the audience gets impatient, Sonu Duggal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) walks into the projection room. A transaction is made. The "single reel" is a special treat for the late-night audience in niche theatres from this era — a woman heaves and pants as she is ravished by an assailant.

The Duggal brothers, Sonu and Vicky (Anil George) produce, direct and sell these reels for low returns. Vicky has grand plans of cutting out the middleman. Sonu has grander plans of being a "filmmaker", fashioning romances that will star his muse, Pinky (Niharika Singh), whom he has just spied on a train.

And so begins a dark film that explores, with equal dexterity, the sordid life of the scum of the earth and their dreams of escape — a world where one falls in love with innocence, and where innocence is a mask: the life of small people in a big city.

The dog-eat-dog tale is beautifully carried by the cast and stark dialogue, recreating the feel of the 1980s. However, it loses its plot just a little bit. What has been a poignant story of ambition, intoxication and betrayal changes pace and texture in the climax.

The Verdict: Definitely worth a watch.

Smooth operators

American Hustle

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

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How delightful it is when a period film about an FBI sting operation becomes an ensemble comedy! With the fluid camera work that reminds one of Martin Scorsese, and a soundtrack comprising jazz, swing and Broadway hits, David O Russell creates a mad game of cat-and-mouse. This is comedy of the highest grade — the humour is in moments, in gestures, in people, and it works because we know the characters and their neuroses so well. The film starts off with this declaration: "Some of this actually happened." That sets the tone. It's careless and maverick and, most importantly, smooth. God, it's smooth. The core plot involves an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) trying to use conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), based on Mel Weinberg, to nab corrupt politicians. The focus is never really on the FBI project Abscam. I'm not quite sure what that was all about. The film stays on Bale, Cooper and Jeremy Renner, who plays a somewhat gullible rockstar-mayor. There are two women in Rosenfeld's life — the screechy wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and the sly mistress (Amy Adams). The film follows random characters, drawing us into parts of their lives. It feels like a happy caper, idiosyncratic in its approach, satisfying in its lack of narrative form and its love of paranoid characters. The acting is excellent. Christian Bale has consistently upped his standards over the years, and I worry that he may one day fall short of our hyped expectations. But that doesn't happen here. He makes Rosenfeld lovable, and carelessly so. We love him when he remarks to his wife that he thought she was mysterious like his mother, until he found out "mysterious" meant "depressed". We love him when he dances his mistress into a ballroom. Bradley Cooper is back as the suave, egotistical pretty-boy, looking for the right time to plunge a knife into a very suspicious back. Amy Adams is impressive as the glamorous con-woman, and Jennifer Lawrence is, as usual, rather annoying. As I walked out of the cinema, I thought of just how much fun the whole film was — how unpretentious, how rock-and-roll, how clever.

The Verdict: American Hustle contrives to successfully straddle the gangster, suspense and comedy genres, and does so by abstaining from overplaying any of those. Don't miss this on the big screen!

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