A few weeks ago, I was watching Merchant–Ivory’s early film, Bombay Talkies, starring Sashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendall. One of the bonus features on the DVD was a documentary, “The Queen of Nautch Girls”, directed and narrated by Anthony Komer, a 30 minute feature on Helen, the original item dance queen. This thoroughly enjoyable, nostalgia evoking film included an interview with Helen and some of her famous dance sequences. Helen, who was fastidiously applying her exotic make-up while being interviewed, comes across as a confident, disciplined, self-aware, successful individual, conscious of her role in the industry and in her own life.
I was reminded repeatedly of that film as I was watching Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture, the supposed biopic of the late southern siren, Silk Smitha. Luthria and the writer Rajat Arora make sure that we get the connection by naming their heroine Reshma / Silk.
First, we should put a myth to rest. This film is NOT a biography of Silk Smitha Going by the many tids and bits of information that have appeared in various media in the past few weeks, the only similarities between Silk Smitha’s life and that of Milan Luthria’s heroine appear to be limited; they both come from a village in South India, become famous for doing sexy roles and dances in southern films, lose their hard earnings in ill conceived production ventures and finally commit suicide.
The real life Silk seems to have had a much more varied and interesting life than the filmy one. She was, according to the news reports, born in a village (incidentally not too far from where I grew up) as Vijayalakshmi, married before her entry into the films, ran away to Madras, started as a make-up assistant to a B-grade film actress, then entered films, became successful as sensuous Silk Smitha – notorious for her raunchy item numbers on screen, took care of her siblings and married again. First person accounts of acquaintances during her film career paint a picture of a reserved, self-contained caring woman of a friendly disposition. She ended her life at the young age of 36 by hanging. Speculations abound about the circumstances of her death.
This poor, dead woman gets exploited once again by the shameless filmmakers. Frankly, this film follows the predictable arc of the innocent protagonist that makes it big and in the process loses herself with an inevitable tragic end. It’s merely a convenience that the protagonist happens to be an item dancer.
Luthria’s Silk, an entirely different woman altogether from the descriptions of the real life Silk, is ambitious, confident, defiant, naughty, brash, crass and quick to take an insult. She is not hesitant to flaunt her body or ride rough over the obstacles on her way. This is definitely not Helen, and may not even be Silk Smitha; but it does not matter. That we end up rooting for this self destructing narcisist is to the credit of the director writer team and the heroine Vidya Balan who portray Silk as a woman that refuses to be apolegetic about being her.
The film belongs to Vidya Balan, completely and totally. Balan, whom we first met a mere half a dozen years ago as Lalita, the demure girl next-door in Parineeta, gives a surprising turn of performance as Silk, definitely not the girt next door. That this actress had talent was taken for granted from her very first film and her portrayal of Krishna in Ishquiya already proved it. Here, cast against type, she dominates this film completely, towering over everything around. Even the inimitable Nasiruddeen Shah is reduced to playing second fiddle when he is around her. She is at once the eager village belle anxious to see herself on the screen for the first time, the seductive and ultimately shocked, shamed and enraged second woman in a superstar’s life, the reckless, vainglorious and somewhat bitter star who allows her ego to trump her better judgement, and the woman searching for her lost self and not finding it. Let me be blunt about it: Vidya Balan, who has put on an ample amount of weight for this role, did not exude the curvy sensuousness of Silk Smitha; neither did she have the famous seductive eyes of the dead star, which the cameraman Balu Mahendra once described as the source of her sexuality. Despite these handicaps, Viday Balan, with her face and posture, rather than her body, conjures the raw sexuality that Silk Smitha was famous for. Silk in this film goes from sexy to frumpy, and Balan brilliantly manages this with her clever, but not very obvous, use of posture and costumes. Vidya Balan dares to take on a challenge and succeeds.
Naseeruddeen Shah, as the aging, egotistical and creepy Tamil cinema super star Suryakant, turns in another brilliant and memorable performance as usual. Tusshar Kapoor as Ramakant, the hapless, sensitive writer brother of the super star is adequate. Emraan Hashmi, as the self-absorbed, ambitious director does not have much to do in the film except to sulk, which he does well. The film is also narrated by him. The surprise performances come from Anju Mahendru as Nayla, a film reporter of the Devyani Chaubal mode (to the uninitiated, Anju Mahendru was an aspiring actress and girlfriend of Rajesh Khanna during his days of ascent to superstardom before she was dumped in favor of Dimple Kapadia), and the person who acted as producer Selva Prakash.
There are many scenes in the film, particularly in the first half, that are crafted exceedingly well by the writer and director. The dialogue, even when cliched or raunchy, sounds crisp and Luthria infuses the screen with the energy, color, sound and verve of the gaudy, raunchy 80s. I particularly liked the way Reshma’s film debut is handled. There are occasional interesting touches. The film sags a bit in the second half with ponderous, cliched, and increasingly lewd dialog and predictable scenes, but Balan makes up for it. The music is good.
Often, the film begs credulity. There is a certain degree of awkwardness in trying to make this the story of a southern film star of the 80s. The ambience of the film reeks of Bombay film industry of the 80s and does not seem to reflect the southern realities of that period. The star, Silk, has such a lonely life that she does not even have any staff at her home, much less the personal entourage on the film sets. Many of the characters are often two dimensional.
Despite all this, the film works. It is entertaining. We get interested in the life of this vivacious woman and empathize with her even as she is slowly destructing herself. We exit the theater with sympathy for this woman’s life, even if she is a filmy myth. That credit goes to the writer, director and, most of all, to Vidya Balan who made this look real.
V Chowdary Jampala