Silk: The Dirty picture

What will Vidya Balan bring to her role as Silk Smitha? Will this film examine the oppressive pressures that corrode the self-worth of women; or will it be yet another Dirty Picture, recreating yet another voyeuristic journey?
Ratna Raman Delhi

Were she alive, Silk Smitha would be 51 on December 2, 2011, the day the biopic distributed by Balaji industries and starring Vidya Balan is slated for release. Ekta Kapoor's observation that Silk Smitha (a prefix that stuck to her after the character 'Silk' in Vandi Chakram, 1979) was great because of her dancing begs the question. Smitha was an extremely graceful mover and shaker, but if Kapoor's need was to immortalise a great dancer, surely, a biopic on Rukmani Arundale would have been more appropriate?

Vijayalakshmi (Smitha's real name) was groomed to speak in English and trained to dance, years after she had dropped out of primary school after the fourth standard and migrated from Andhra Pradesh to nearby Tamil Nadu to live with her aunt. For this young woman working as a make-up artist in Kodambakkam, a sea change occurred when her screen name and her new image were carefully mentored to chase her own silver screen dreams. Silk Smitha appeared on the film horizon at the end of the 1970s and had an appearance in almost 400 films, almost half of which were mainstream films in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi.

Acting for most female artistes includes a grind, bump and swivel, song and dance sequence, and plenty of skin show. On an average, women, despite long lingering camera close-ups, rarely get substantive roles in Bollywood, Tollywood, 'Sandalwood', and all the other cine forests our country boasts of. The single most significant expectation from an actress is that she must hoist up a hundred thousand male libidos. Everything else takes second place.

In the 1980s, when Silk Smitha shone on celluloid, things were rather difficult for a female aspirant. For one thing the censors were very censorious. So were societal norms. Women on screen were presented only in a series of binary oppositions: good or bad, chaste or slutty, heroine or vamp, beautiful or ugly, and this was the fortuitous combination that always made it past the censors. Of course, the vamps were villainous and their lives served as warning to all chaste women, while the good women on screen were cultural icons of all things imitable.

The distributors and producers were a pragmatic lot. If a story needed to be told, it needed an unblemished and chaste heroine. However, to sell, fleshpots were a primary requirement. Skin show on celluloid provided an effective safety valve for the heterosexual male and even protected the chaste heterosexual female, both onscreen and offscreen, by providing an outlet for repressed Indian manhood.

Silk Smitha fitted this market need admirably. Most of the films she acted in required item numbers. In fact, films that had long been canned were revived and went on to become box office successes with the addition of one item number by Silk Smitha!

It is difficult to be young and a woman in any patriarchal chauvinistic society. It was much harder to be both in the 1980s when Silk Smitha smouldered on celluloid as an item number and quickly assumed the stature of a sex symbol. The finest singers sang for her and the biggest actors, such as Chiranjeevi, Rajnikanth, Kamalahasan and Jeetendra, sashayed with her onscreen.

Catapulted overnight into the heady world of tinsel town, Smitha's larger than life image was splashed across tabloids and billboards. She titillated, dazzled, danced, charmed and seduced, leaving her audiences panting for more, literally and metaphorically. In a clip from Neengalum Hero Thaan (1990) she can be seen on a terrace in shorts and tee, over-clothed by today's standards and watched by slobbering mundu-clad geriatrics. This reel life situation is not really very different from real life situations where young women routinely become objects of undesired attention.

In Shenbagame, Shenbagame (1988), she is part of a dancing troupe at the edge of a village community. So the raunchy dances notwithstanding, she is the nautch girl with a heart of gold and an impeccable code. The heroine subjects her to abuse and accusation, and the heroine's brother kicks her in the stomach, but she commendably turns the other cheek, resolutely living out the doctrine of nishkama karma.

As an older woman, wife of the headmaster, she attempts the seduction of an innocent (butter will not melt in his mouth) Kamalahasan in Sadma (1983), dressed in black shorts and tee, in a garden scene. In yet another scene from the same film, this time in the sitting room, her advances are repulsed by the hero because in Indian cinema the hero's moral stature was once constructed through such acts. The vamp is usually present to demonstrate that the Indian male's virility is alive and kicking.

Small wonder that Wikipedia commends Smitha's performance in Sadma as her most respected role. Another writer draws attention to the similarities between Smitha's life and that of Marilyn Monroe. Both lived with their aunts, became iconic sex symbols, and took their own lives apparently at the pinnacle of success, one through an overdose of pills and the other by hanging.

Yet, were we to look away from the glamour, neon lights and booty worshippers, we would see a young, lonely woman with few friends and fewer options. With two of her own productions bombing, mounting expenses and the new demarcation of the film heroine as someone who could now don sassy and sexy roles, Smitha was possibly pushed into a corner.

It is all too easy to sneer at Silk Smitha. But, despite being slotted as catering to the crass instinct, Smitha was a talented dancer, adept at carrying off a whole range of images, from traditional village belle to bustier-clad cabaret dancer, and to jumpsuit and leotard wearing metro-chic. Sadly, her great flair for comedy seems to have been overlooked by viewers and reviewers alike.

Her soft porn film Layanam (1989) grossed big money for its distributors in Kerala, Andhra and Tamil Nadu, and was dubbed in Hindi as Reshma ki Jawani (2002) six years after her death and 13 years after it was made. Importantly, Smitha was the uncrowned queen of the item number in the long decade-and-a-half era before the concept was taken over by lead actresses. Her dance numbers pre-dating Aishwarya Rai's Kajrare Kajrare (Bunty aur Babli, 2005) and Bipasha Basu's Bidi Jalaile (Omkara, 2006) were resounding box-office successes.

Moving beyond clichéd responses to her 'not-so-nice' roles and her 'thunder thighs', it is time to ask why, despite good looks, attractive features, talent as a dancer, and the adulation due to an object of desire, was Silk Smitha pushed into ending her life? Like Monroe and several other young women, Smitha was appropriated by the male gaze in a grip of extended voyeurism, one that provided little support or solace when she teetered over. It is a sobering thought that despite setting the male pulse racing and pumping up the adrenalin, what she brought to the screen and to the audiences did little to bolster her own self-worth.

For each time a human being chooses to die, the desperation brought about by poor self-worth is a significant causal factor. Women in the film industry today continue to be beset with the anomalies of inequitable signing up amounts, lack of stature and low self-esteem in comparison to men. Despite the arrival of the bold new heroine of the 21st century, at ground zero the belittling of women in reel life often continues to spill over into real life all the time.

Will Vidya Balan's portrayal of Smitha's life give us a nuanced portrayal?

Vidya essayed an unconventional role in Ishqiya (2010). Starting off as an innocent young wife who has been abandoned to struggle as a widow, she deftly handles two would-be suitors (Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi) by alternating between unattainable ideal and coquettish vixen, and finally emerges as a vulnerable avenger. In all, this was a more fleshed out, composite representation of a woman than earlier celluloid attempts.

What will Vidya be allowed to bring to her role as Silk Smitha? Will this film examine at close quarters the oppressive pressures, cultural and societal, that corrode the self-worth of women; or will it simply be yet another Dirty Picture recreating yet another voyeuristic journey? If agog audiences must be fed scurrilous stories, cinedom is awash with many dead bodies,
each one a mute testimonial to a life akin to Smitha's.

Dr Ratna Raman is Associate Professor, Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2011