Formerly known as Vijayalakshmi, the blatantly sensuous Smitha - who reigned over all the similarly exotically-named sex sirens of her time (Polyester Padmini, Nylon Nalini, Disco Shanti) - died all alone, under mysterious circumstances, in her house in Chennai. She was 36. The loyal audience lamented for a while, but with heroines shedding inhibitions and clothes, the vamp/sex bomb was soon forgotten.
Till Ekta Kapoor decided to produce The Dirty Picture, a biopic loosely based on her life. This Milan Luthria production releases, incidentally, on the birthday of the sex goddess - 2 December.
The Dirty Picture begins with a loud Tamil chant, immediately gripping you. A young village girl, Reshma, has dreams that her mother does not take seriously. So, on the day before her arranged wedding, Reshma runs away to Madras, with every intention of becoming an actor. She befriends an elderly lady who runs an idli-dosai place, and tries her luck at countless sets and studios, in vain.
Reshma (Vidya Balan) makes it very clear to the powers (casting agents, producers, assistant directors, choreographers) that be that she is willing to do anything to become an artiste. However, she is not a "loose" woman - just desperately ambitious.
She strikes gold when she imposes her suggestive dance moves in a film song. The producer (Rajesh Sharma) knows a good thing when he sees it, and immediately launches her as the hottest vamp-cum-item-girl, Silk. The rest, as they say, is history.
The first half of the movie is fascinating, script-wise. The director lays open the life of a girl whose only crime is ambition. You will sigh when Silk is rejected, and cheer when she defies the moralistic world. Add to this the crisp dialogues and banter by Rajat Arora, and you will find it impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen.
After the intermission, however, as you eagerly rush back to your seats, be prepared to be disappointed. The second half begins with a whimper, and it is all downhill from there (again, script-wise). It becomes obvious that the filmmakers were in a hurry to finish the movie, and therefore squeezed in random, disconnected sequences, leading to a tragic climax that seems bland and lifeless, much like Madhur Bhandarkar's Fashion.
The director Ibrahim (Emraan Hashmi) is the narrator of the movie, and he leaves many questions unanswered. Why did Silk have a traumatic relationship with her mother? What was that one lucky fan all about? And what on earth is Nyla's (a journalist with a film magazine, played by Anjoo Mahendroo) problem? Nyla writes off Silk, then applauds her, then calls the cops to arrest her, then shows concern for her well-being. This character could have been an important one, but becomes a superficial one instead.
You must keep in mind that the story is set in the 1980s, when the heroine of a movie could not be portrayed as a sex object. Producers realised, after much experimenting, that a little titillation worked wonders. They, therefore, introduced the sultry woman with "loose" morals, who gyrated to songs filled with innuendos, and also made love to the camera.
In one particular sequence in The Dirty Picture, several men walk into a theatre just in time for the item song, they dance and hoot, and then leave once the song is over - and this is exactly what happened during those days.
In fact, the line between tasteful art and pornography was soon blurred in the film industry. Cameras focused on body-parts instead of faces and talent, and leading men and villains alike had the dubious pleasure of not only feeling up the vamp (who, of course, asked for it, what with her strong sexuality exhibited shamelessly), but also pinching, spanking and whipping her. Soft porn became the norm, and a repressed nation of men was exposed to stuff that they could fantasise about.
The Dirty Picture does not attempt to portray any one particular film industry of the time, but the strong south-Indian references cannot be overlooked. It is believed that Silk Smitha had strong relationships with 3 big names in the Tamil film industry, and that she was left heartbroken each time. That possibly explains why she felt the need to become more daring about baring her voluptuous body on screen.
The filmmakers may have wanted the audience to sympathise with a woman whose career became her downfall, but ironically, the movie ends up becoming a little preachy about what she should have done right to avoid the impending tragedy.
To give Milan Luthria his due credit, however, at no point does he try to titillate the audience - he, instead, presents a matter-of-fact story of a woman named Silk.
Naseerudin Shah, as the superstar who is surrounded by fawning sycophants, is extraordinary. His dialogue delivery is impeccable, especially when he feigns humility every time somebody calls him a genius. Emraan Hashmi as the director tries too hard, but he does not seem convincing enough. His angst is not justified, and neither is his apparent hatred for Silk. Tusshar Kapoor plays a writer, and his acting is as insipid as his role.
The movie, however, belongs to Vidya Balan. Despite her lip-biting and pouting, and her short tank tops, not once does she cross the line into vulgarity. Her credibility as an artiste, never in doubt, has increased by leaps and bounds. Real women have curves, and the actor has not shied away from flaunting her paunch or love handles. Balan has lived the character, and it shows.
Just a small drawback - Silk Smitha came from a village, and was as rustic as one would expect, Vidya Balan does not seem anything but educated and urban.
The ridiculous 1980s that most of us would rather forget is now brought to life, with ill-fitted wigs, polka dots, garish colours and the most effective symbol of prosperity - the Maruti car. There is just one problem with the otherwise flawless production design - since everything was shot inside the Ramoji Studio, there is a lack of variety in the backdrops. However, Vidya Balan fills the screen (literally and figuratively), and the untrained eye may not notice the limited number of locations.
Niharika Khan deserves a standing ovation for her costumes. And Vidya Balan deserves an additional round for carrying them off so well. Actually, so does Naseerudin Shah.
Whether you're a Silk Smitha enthusiast or an '80s aficionado, The Dirty Picture is worth more than a watch, for Vidya Balan, definitely. And by the way, getting Bappi Lahiri to sing Ooh La La is a pure stroke of genius.