Archive | March, 2012

The Dirty Picture – An Overrated Movie

18 Mar

The Dirty Picture is one of the most talked about recent movies of Bollywood. Released in December last year (to coincide with the birth anniversary of southern siren, Silk Smitha, who was the main inspiration for the central character), the film has bagged several national awards including the prestigious Filmfare awards.

Why though is a mystery to this reviewer. A lot of hype had been built around the movie prior to its release. Bollywood, the demigods of the Indian film industry, were making a film lionizing of all people – a minor character in the Southern film industry. Silk Smitha was not just a ‘minor character’ in Southern movies though. She was an ‘item girl’ held in active contempt by the conservative masses for the raw and raunchy sexuality she brought to the screen.

As a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, I remember watching TV with groups of other people; the groans and caustic remarks of the adult females, the sheepish embarrassment of the males, whenever one of her songs came on. If it happened to be at the theatre, there would be catcalls and whistles from groups of young males and irritation on the faces of everyone else.
A song or two was all that she was relegated to in the movies. To suddenly appear with a bare midriff and gyrate on the screen with the hero or someone else and then disappear. Meanwhile, the heroine would be decently covered in a sari and exude no sexual vibes whatsoever – that was left to Smitha, within her five minutes of a song sequence.

Silk Smitha, originally Vijayalakshmi, a poverty stricken village girl from the South of India who chose a path for herself and blazed through it! A story of rags-to riches-to suicide!

Over time, the word Silke became almost an epithet in Tamil. People would frequently snap, “That woman is a silke” or “Don’t act like Silke” whenever they perceived any sexual body language or overt behavior in girls. Her suicide caused a minor sensation in 1996, but much was made even then in vernacular press coverages, of her live-in lover and how she was estranged from her family because they were embarrassed by her reputation.

The societal consensus that I imbibed and accepted while growing up was that she was an immoral character who was not to be emulated. She was the very antithesis of the ideal woman – someone ‘sexy’ who flaunted her body – an embarrassment to society and not how they wanted their daughters to grow up to be.
So I was startled, as a lot of other people were, by the news that some big names in Bollywood were making a movie on her. The South, especially Kollywood in which she had worked for the 16 years of her career had never considered it but their much admired cousins up North were gearing up to make a film on her, 15 years after her death.

One of her song sequences 'Nethu Rathri' with Kamal.
I loved this song as a child for some reason and was very embarrassed when the adults figured it out :\

Silk Smitha was only a distant memory but when I considered it as an adult, I figured that Bollywood had it right. Despite all the negative press and disapproval she had generated in the milieu she moved in, she was a strong character, a pioneer of sorts who deserved to have her story told. As an adult, I could not but admire her courage and inner resilience for being what she was, considering the repressive, misogynistic and judgmental culture that fostered her.

She had been born in a poverty stricken family, studied only till the fourth standard and married off very young in an arranged marriage. She had apparently suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law and run off to Chennai to escape it. She did minor roles in films until someone noticed her provocative sexuality and cast her in roles that made the most of it, typecasting her forever in that role. In the very few films that allowed her to act as a real character instead of just emote sex and ooze oomph, she delivered strong performances which received critical acclaim. She was actually a talented actress but unfortunately for her, good actresses were widely available.

What she had that was unique for that time was a great body, ripe sexuality and a fluid, natural ability to dance. Producers and directors made the most of it; the movies had a tried and tested recipe to appeal to the masses – the action hero, the demure, ideal heroine, brash, over-the-top fight scenes and sex appeal. And the sex appeal component of it was provided by Smitha in a way heroines of that time could not do and were not expected to do.
That she provided it so capably and artistically garnered her more and more work of the same nature but not respect. At best, she was considered a necessary evil – her presence in movies ensured sold tickets to the male masses who cheered her lustily but certainly didn’t consider her a figure of respect either.
What must it have been like for her? To grow up uneducated and to be married into an abusive household? To run away to the city where she would have been completely out of her depth? To overcome all that and make a name for herself as a sexy dancer, whose presence was necessary in almost every movie made at that time, whether with unknown actors or stars at their peak? To become a household name, yet a household name that was sneered at?

There are stories of her being treated like a ‘low caste’ on the sets; stories of being ignored by the women who worked with her and leered at / solicited by the men. Extremely dark skinned, she drew criticism for not being ‘good looking’ in the fairness obsessed South. They applied layers of make-up all over her body to make her skin tone more acceptable. How did she live through all that, sustaining nevertheless scintillating performances through 16 years? From where did she get the strength to be what she was and take pride in what she did? Apparently she designed her costumes herself. If so, she never received her due acclaim as a brilliant costume designer. Her clothes were not just skimpy – they were beautifully designed and sexy.

She put a lot of effort into her look, accessories and costumes. While other actresses got to keep the clothes they wore on set however, she had to hand over hers. One of the many discriminatory acts she complained of. It was just to prove a point - the movie company couldn't have used her costumes again anyway!

Reviewing her performances – available widely on Youtube now – one can see that she was very good at what she did. She was confident and sexy and while in the 80s, what she did was considered sleazy, times have changed and mainstream acclaimed heroines now do the same kind of performances. A bare and gyrating midriff is an essential in Tamil movies now. In case the character of the heroine calls for complete demureness and modesty in dress-code, she will at-least have to appear as a sexy siren in the hero’s dreams – and of course the dream will be a song where she is dressed in skimpy clothes to dance with him. With so many of them doing it as an accepted part of the industry however, they are not likely to face the kind of censure and contempt Smitha did in her time.

A movie purporting to be a biopic of her caught the fancy of many who looked forward to what this much maligned artiste of her time would be made out to be. It disappoints on several levels. Casting Vidhya Balan for the main role was the first goof-up. Balan might be a critically acclaimed actress but sexiness was never what she was known for; Smitha oozed sexiness from her very core and set the screen aflame with it – something Balan fails spectacularly to emulate. Much has been made of her performance in this movie, which garnered her even the Filmfare Best Actress award but all I can see is her trying very hard – and failing – at emulating a character she clearly has no intrinsic identification with. She has certainly tried, going to the extent of uncovering and showing more skin that she ever has before but there was more to Smitha than just showing off a lot of skin. And that innate quality of smouldering sexiness she had which made her a much sought after performer, Vidhya lacks.

One is classically beautiful but the other has sex appeal. Any guesses on who is which?

The storyline is also extremely poor; it shows a young woman who runs off from her village to make it big in the city of Chennai. It shows her willing to strip and have affairs to enhance her career. But there is no character development – she displays contradictive characteristics at different times. Perhaps the objective was to show that she was a complex character who could not be typecast, but if so, it was clumsily done. The Silk in the movie is an anti-heroine, a rather unlikable character who is overtly ambitious. She manages to bring most of the males she encounters under her spell except for a certain young director who loathes her and all that she represents.
The movie is recounted in narrative form in his voice. He charts her progress and downfall ( brought about by his making a movie mocking her) but then falls in love with her himself. There is no believable progression on how this rather unbelievable change of heart takes place for him – apparently he is bewildered by it himself and we have to be satisfied with that.

A needless story of love! The Dirty Picture which caricatures Southern Movies is itself a typical Bollywood movie with all the attendant masala thrown in!

He is the hero of the movie, but the character playing the generic star of South Indian moviedom was Suryakanth (Naseeruddin Shah). His title flashing on the theatre screen when Silk goes to watch one of his movies is ‘Smashing Surya.’ The producers have consistently denied that the role was based on Rajnikanth but people who have seen ‘Superstar Rajnikanth’ flash on similar screens would know better.
And if one still has doubts, the scene following the credits ought to clinch it. He swaggers down a road in cowboy gear to meet his opponent who tosses up some coins in the air and shoots them down to show his prowess with a gun.
Smashing Surya just cocks an eyebrow, then pulls out a dollar note. He too tosses it up in the air and shoots – the note turns into several coins which fall down. It was clearly meant to be a ribbing of Rajnikanth’s antics in movies but it was too over-the-top and the character was too much of a caricature to be appreciated. He swaggered like Rajni and performed over the top tricks like his, but with none of Rajni’s flair or aplomb. Ultimately, if one was to take seriously that he was a megastar of that time period, one was left wondering why. He couldn’t dance, he had a stiff body and poker face, he was clearly past his prime with a pouchy face indicative of too much alcohol consumption and most importantly he had absolutely no charisma. They were so busy caricaturing Rajnikanth’s excesses that they seemed to have overlooked this important fact.
The movie is just one marathon run of such oversights and goof-ups. Ultimately, where they wanted to go with it is also not clear. The plot, the character development, the story line – all lack depth, perception and vision which is what is so disappointing and annoying about it. It fails to live up to all the hype about feminism, portrayal of a strong but different woman, a look at the 80s movie industry etc etc. It could have been all that but ultimately it is none of that. It’s just an incoherent story about a brash woman whom one can’t determine whether to dislike or feel sorry for.
The movie details none of Smitha’s hardships, triumphs in overcoming them or the strength of character she must have had to do it. The real Smitha committed suicide because her lover had persuaded her to move into film production and she lost all her savings in that venture.

The Dirty picture however needlessly makes up a story of how she lost her appeal and pulling power, how she had a more sexy competitor, how she was brought down simply because she was caricatured in a movie…

Much was made of Balan's weight gain for the movie! Why?
Through all her trials and tribulations, Smitha maintained a voluptuous but flab free body. Couldn't some credit be given at least where it was due?

The ‘sexy’ competitor was not sexy – what was the matter with Ekta Kapoor and Co. that they couldn’t find any sexy women to emote sexiness? Her name is Shakeela; uninspired choice of name! There is a real Shakeela in South Indian moviedom but she is a soft porn actress, whose star rose only after Smitha died. Smitha did have some competitors like Disco Shanthi vying for the kind of roles she did but she was the star of her firmament. She was never eclipsed or overtaken in her niche so long as she ruled it. While the real Shakeela is also grossly overweight, the Dirty Picture Shakeela is stick thin. She was quite pretty but absolutely the wrong casting choice for her role as a vamp.

She and Silk have a dance-off in the movie to determine who is sexier, the whole of which is utterly pathetic as neither are. Their insipid and uninspired dance moves didn’t even reach an approximation of the kind of burlesque dancing that Smitha specialized in.

Balan and Shah in the one good song of the movie - ooh la la!
Even here, Balan's dancing was insipid at best compared to Smitha's

The movie, purportedly portraying the historical phenomenon of sexiness in southern movies for the first time in the 80s is so full of mistakes and ill researched portrayals of the reality that it is alternately laughable and irritating.

The producer turned director who discovers and promotes Silk’s sexuality finds himself adversely written about in the press for it. Not just any press though – Stardust. Gossipy, catty stardust!
Since when was Stardust a serious magazine that talked virtuously of the ‘industry being brought to new lows?’

And when at any time in the 80s did it ever concern itself with the doings of the Southern movie industry? Also when did catty film journalists win ‘Journalist of the Year’ awards?
The journalist Naila (Anju Mahendru) wears fearful, gothic eye make-up and pontificates in a manner that says her role is that of ‘feminist.’ Hers is yet another silly and ill developed character.
She tells Silk that she is on the verge of a historical breakthrough for womanhood and filmdom with what she is doing, though she hasn’t realized it herself – something true of the real silk and one of those rare moments when the movie lives up to its promised potential.

But they bring it crashing down later, when Silk inadvertently finds herself trapped into making a pornographic movie. A needless and revolting scene to prove what exactly, I don’t know. Silk, who was portrayed as having no hang-ups with the casting couch and indiscriminate sex, was shown as appalled when she had to act in a pornographic movie. And though she escapes in the nick of time, she is so heartily ashamed that, that on top of everything else drives her to suicide apparently.
The producers said they were making a movie on a woman who had pushed the boundaries of her time and ultimately pushed the whole southern film industry into a new era. They appear to admire her for it, along with adopting a holier-than-thou attitude towards the southern industry which didn’t accord her enough respect. But times and perceptions change or haven’t they imbibed that erstwhile wisdom yet? They in their turn adopt a virtuous air over pornography and those who make it. This is the era of porn actress Sunny Leonie being courted by Bollywood bigwigs. No doubt, in another decade, she too will be lauded for pushing boundaries. And had silk lived, she probably would have made it into pornography too.

She made a career out of wearing skimpy clothes and elegant modern make-up which she clearly reveled in but for her death in the movie, she chooses to wear a sari in a distinctly overly-modest and village womanish manner with Indian make-up complete with red pottu. Why that complete metamorphosis in character and what was it supposed to signify?

The movie bagged all the ‘best’ awards at the Filmfare awards – The best actress, best movie, best scene, best director, best supporting actor, best costume designer…
Yet it was a farce from beginning to finish – 2.5 hours of pure balderdash. If it proves anything, it is that publicity and hype is more important than actual quality of the output. At least Silk Smitha, who was held in contempt all her life for what she did, delivered the goods she was contracted for. With finesse, grace and aplomb. If the makers of the Dirty Picture had been a little less cynical and tried to follow a little more of her example, they might have produced a better picture. The Dirty Picture is ultimately just an untidy and haphazard picture with grandiose delusions about itself. Delusions it seems to have successfully sold to the industry at large.

The Rise and Fall of the Real Silk Smitha - a worthwhile story yet not told. I would gladly buy the book or watch the movie based on her real life! Somebody needs to work on it!
Watching the Dirty Picture was akin to seeing a restaurant desert ad and endlessly fantasizing about it, only to literally taste ashes in my mouth, once I accessed it.
It doesn't deserve the credit of being called an appetizer although it has certainly whetted my appetite for the real thing!