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.)