Friday, December 02, 2011

The Dirty Picture 

Va va voom Vidya

Even today, the Indian movie business is male dominated, women get far less money and respect than men do, and their career spans are shamefully short. In the eighties, in conservative Tamil Nadu, the male chauvinism was much worse and so was the hypocrisy. Kudos to Milan Luthria and Ekta Kapoor for attempting a film like The Dirty Picture, when hardly anyone makes films with female protagonists. Sadly, most such films also disappoint in their portrayal of the woman.  It can’t be helped, perhaps, that filmmakers also come out of the patriarchal system that the movie industry is, and it would be very tough for them to take a financial risk over a film that overturns conventional ideas.

The Dirty Picture does not admit that it is based on the life of Silk Smitha, the sex symbol of the eighties, though many of its plot points are picked up from her story and the lead character is called Silk. To begin with, it’s an inspiring chronicle of an ambitious village girl Reshma (Vidya Balan), who runs away from home a day before her wedding and reaches Madras, to become a film star.

She soon realises that it is not easy, but is also shrewd enough to understand that she “has what men want” and uses it to get into films. She seduces reigning superstar Suryakant (Naseeruddin Shah—right look, wrong accent), and then unabashedly uses sex appeal to become a star.

The period details are recreated well, and also glimpses of Tamil films of that period are authentic; but you see the industry only from the point of view of one star, one writer, one producer, one director and one journalist—oversimplifying everything to the point of dilution.  How is Silk different from the women of that time? How does her sharp and witty boldness (Rajat Arora’s dialogues for her are tangy) affect her relationships with other actors of the period?  If men love her, women hate her and the press relentlessly attacks her, how does she achieve stardom?

Her rise, because of the backing of Suryakant is still convincing, and the character’s total lack of inhibition and modesty is appealing.  If Luthria had let such a character triumph it would have been a revolutionary film; but industry norms decide that such a woman must be punished—very well then, let her downfall have exploitation, degradation, pain, regret.  Luthria shies away from this too.  Silk Smitha had allegedly committed suicide and her story was sordid— disappointment in love, collapse of career, financial losses—typical of the time when a woman in the Tamil industry could not break the boundaries laid down for her. If anything the fate of the real Silk is a contrast with attitudes today.  Women in films still do not share power, but a Mallika Sherawat or Rakhi Sawant get a kind of dubious respectability.  As the character of the film critic-cum-gossip writer (Anju Mahendru) says, “What is rebellion  today will be freedom tomorrow.”  Problem is Silk’s rebellion is superficial.

Does this Silk have power over men?  Are her affairs with Suryakant’s brother (Tusshar) and a hate-love thing with a director Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) for real?  She seems to be a one-man woman who is naïve enough—in that society—to resent Suryakant’s wife.  She does not appear to crave the security or social ascent of marriage, so (sorry for the spoiler), her death in bridal finery is a slap in the face of everything she stood for. Does Luthria admire Silk or pity her? Does he wish to celebrate female audacity or revile it? A clear point of view would have made the film honest and not just a way of titillating men in the audience.

It may do well commercially, but it will remain a wishy washy and yes, exploitative film, redeemed entirely by Vidya Balan’s bravura performance—not so much the sexy bits, but the part where she allows herself to be seen as fat, aging and lonely.  When an actor can drop vanity to this extent, her courage is to be applauded.


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