A fictional biopic loosely based on real-life 1980s item girl Silk Smitha, Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture has taken Bollywood by storm. It’s a common narrative — a small town girl with big dreams of fame is soon chewed up and spit out by an ugly, male-dominated machine — but what stands out is the riveting, utterly fearless performance by Vidya Balan (Parineeta, Ishqiya). Balan owns the screen with an unapologetic, earthy sexuality that bucks the current global trend of the size zero heroine. As Silk, she is both vulgar and vulnerable, virgin and whore, with a combination of innocence and sensuality caught in the lush roll of her hips.
There’s a certain irony to Balan putting herself out there so thoroughly, writhing for the camera as Silk shimmies her way into the South Indian cinema spotlight. In order to play Silk, Balan had to embrace the sexuality that Silk was derided for. Just as Silk’s audience is in the cheap seats, crowding the theaters for one titillating flash of her bared midriff, the real audience is leaning forward, similarly captivated by Balan’s.
(Major plot spoilers ahead.)
The tragedy of Silk is that ultimately, like so many women in the Indian film industry, she is disposable. There will always be a younger actress willing to go the extra mile. There will always be a producer with an agenda and an actor occupied with keeping the shine of his own star. Heroes can get older — a trope that’s played to the comedic hilt by veteran character actor Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding) — but heroines have a sell-by date. Particularly if they are, as Silk is, the vamp, the vixen, the item girl. The sexual tease is a momentary high, and Silk falls victim to the fact that what men want in the bedroom — or for two minutes on their cinema hall screen — is seldom what they crave anywhere else. She also falls victim to her own hubris.
The film’s breakout song “Ooh La La,” which spoofs classic ’80s musical numbers with spot-on accuracy, is used to reinforce the theme of Silk being a man’s dirty little secret… as she beguiles first Shah’s Suryakant and then his weak-willed brother Ramakant (Tusshar Kapoor). It’s like she’s a wild desi Eve, tempting them with her apple… but the audience is uncomfortably aware that for all of Silk’s bravado, she is destined for a fall and will soon be cast out of Eden. The film’s narrator, an arthouse director named Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) who is the first to slam Silk as a lewd gimmick, warns us with almost a glee that Silk’s life is going nowhere good.
The Dirty Picture could certainly stand to delve deeper into the overall theme of women being exploited for their sexuality and then cast aside, but it keeps its lens focused tightly on Silk’s rise and fall, painting with broad strokes her chain-smoking, her alcoholism, and the turn of her voluptuous beauty into a weight problem. The harder she tries to be the bold sex symbol who doesn’t care that she is reviled, the worse it gets for her. At one crucial point in the film, Silk notes that many men have touched her, but none have truly touched her…but that’s a self-awareness that comes far too late.
“Ishq Sufiana” — a beautiful but derivative ballad — initially feels shoehorned into the film’s last act for the sake of adding another song on the soundtrack, but in retrospect there’s a bittersweet message encapsulated in the stylized dream sequence. In his own way, the obsessed Abraham idealizes Silk. Not as a sex object, but as his naika, the heroine of his personal picture. Once he accepts she’s not his enemy, he, too, falls into a trap of not really seeing beyond the facade. In “Ishq Sufiana,” Silk is beautiful, slender, untouched by the grit of her real life… and both Abraham and the viewer are afforded a sudden bit of hope that she can be “saved.” Maybe these two crazy kids will make it. Maybe it’ll all work out for Silk. That makes it ultimately more devastating when Silk, clad in red like a traditional Indian bride, weds what she views as her only true salvation: death.
The real element of titular dirt in The Dirty Picture is the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s not about a sex object’s trials and tribulations; it’s a drawn-out snuff film… one that we are meant to walk away from as if it’s a masala film, with the jaunty title card going up at the end and the “Ooh La La” refrain. In the midst of processing the horror of this woman’s sad story, we’re reminded that the machine grinds on: Silk is dead, but long live Silk… there will always be another fantasy just around the corner. Fortunately, there is the reality of Vidya Balan’s mesmerizing, game-changing, performance to cling to: She spins Silk into gold.