As the tsunami of awards will testify, the most popular film of 2011 was not a masala flick nor an overhyped on-par-with-Hollywood action film but a little movie called The Dirty Picture, allegedly - but not officially - based on the life of notorious Southern item girl Silk Smitha. As expected of an Ekta Kapoor production, the film cannily hits on every popular meme making the rounds of Bollywood production offices these days. It’s a Southern-tinged, racy, retro romp packed with punch-lines (in the masala sense) but anchored with the multiplex desire for a certain type of Hollywood-style realism. With heroine Vidya Balan at the front and center of both the marketing campaign and athe film, The Dirty Picture has also been lauded as proving that films don’t need a big name hero (or any hero) to sell tickets and Vidya, who famously had to gain weight to properly fill out Silk’s tube tops, has been applauded for smashing the size zero standard that had taken hold of the industry’s top talent.
At this point, debating the “goodness” of The Dirty Picture as a film is irrelevant to the conversation about The Dirty Picture but - being me - I’m going to do it anyways because I do think this film is important and I hope that producers and filmmakers take away the right lessons from it.
Due to some distribution mishaps, I missed out on the The Dirty Picture when it was playing in the theater and had to wait until the film was available on DVD in order to view it, which is why this review is coming so late.
The Dirty Picture is set in Chennai and follows Reshma aka Silk (Vidya Balan) and her rise and fall in the film industry. Underpinning that main thread is Silk’s relationship with three very different men: aging superstar Suriya (Naseeruddin Shah), Suriya’s weak-willed and spoiled younger brother Ramakanth (Tusshar Kapoor), and pompous on-par-with-Hollywood director Abraham (Emraan Hashmi). While I am not familiar with Silk Smitha’s particular tale of woe, I am a long time student of self-destructive artist biographies from Isadora Duncan to Anita O’Day to Amy Winehouse and back again - drugs, drink, bad romance, manipulative advisers, money problems, distorted self-image, and, most tragically, perhaps, the tunnel vision that sets in when their worlds seem to be collapsing around them. Each troubled celebrity has their own particular circumstances but the overall narrative arc remains the same. They rise to the top, finding both self-worth and the seeds of self-destruction in the adoration of millions. The fall happens, as it inevitably must, and ends in suicide, overdose, or, if they’re really unlucky, a long, lonely and bitter life a la Sunset Boulevard.
Both the filmi Silk and her real-life counterpart brought an end to the narrative by taking their own lives - the real Silk by hanging herself and the filmi Silk with sleeping pills and booze.
At the risk of earning myself some trolling comments, I’m going to go on the record and say that The Dirty Picture is not a great film. It’s an okay film with one phenomenal performance - Vidya Balan as Silk Smitha. It has other issues that I’ll get to further on but speaking about it as a film, The Dirty Picture is weighed down by two things a) director Milan Luthria’s inability to build narrative tension and b) the use of Abraham’s relationship with Silk as a framing device.
To the first point, having seen four of Milan’s films, I feel confident saying that this inability to build an overarching narrative tension is not just a one off. He’s wonderful with individual scenes and short segments but cannot seem to build these smaller pieces into a complete whole. This doesn’t always affect the quality of the overall film - Taxi No. 9211 worked just fine - but in this case it really did. As the film walked at an even pace towards the finish line, Silk’s fall had no emotional heft beyond what Vidya could convey in her performance in individual scenes. The final portion of the film leapfrogs through time on fast forward stopping only to hit on scenes that provide exposition. I could see the narrative that Milan wanted us to follow but that cathartic and melodramatic aspect was mostly missing.
The trouble with Abraham is a bit more nuanced. Leaving aside the casting of Emraan Hashmi (who is really a very mediocre actor), Abraham as a tool of the script felt like a sop to the male ego. It’s kind of insulting to reveal in the final act that a film about a powerful woman is actually really a story about the man who wanted to rescue her from herself. At the end, Silk is just another troubled woman of the sort that made Kangana Ranaut’s career and while Vidya’s performance is powerful (like Kangana’s always are) it feels like a real cop out to end the film with a whimpering Abraham instead of on Silk’s own terms.
And, while we’re on the topic, don’t be taken in by Emraan Hashmi’s voice-overs - none of the men in this film loved Silk. Suriya, Silk’s first lover, is perhaps the simplest. He liked the attentions of nubile young woman and was happy to do so as long as it didn’t affect his ego, career, or marriage (in that order.) Ramakanth, Silk’s second lover, is the most interesting of the three in my opinion. He was infatuated with Silk’s screen persona, much like gay men love divas like Bette Midler, who got her start in San Francisco’s bath houses. When Silk’s messy personality and insecurities begin to tarnish Ramakanth’s shining image of her, it makes him uncomfortable and he drops her like a ton of bricks. (And don’t even try to tell me that the character Tusshar Kapoor was playing wasn’t gay - he was two steps short of flaming.)
Lastly, there is Abraham, who thought he was in love with Silk and who the narrative wanted us to believe was in love with Silk. I didn’t see it. Abraham wanted to rescue Silk. She triggered some sort of Hero complex in him (helpfully illustrated via the one true song picturization in the film “Ishq Sufiana”) and he got off on it. Silk, for her part, craved attention and if dopey Abraham was going to give it to her, well, why not?
We can almost see the condescending Abraham with his on par with Hollywood attitude representing the on par with Hollywood filmmakers in Bollywood today. He hates the entertainment, entertainment, entertainment that Silk stands for but eventually comes to some sort of understanding with her - much like how the heaving bosoms on display in a song like “Ooo La La” are only acceptable in the context of a “serious” film like The Dirty Picture.
But, like I said at the beginning, all of this is beside the point. The real story of The Dirty Picture is that of Vidya Balan. The woman that Bollywood called fat and old and washed-up not three years ago is casually running victory laps around every other heroine working today (with the possible exception of one Miss Kareena Kapoor.) She was every inch a masala hero in The Dirty Picture, delivering punch lines left and right, seducing the camera, and triumphing over enemies. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her when she was on screen and when she was off, I wanted her back on. Her pre-interval speech to the assembled filmi elites was worth the price of the film alone.
Vidya portrayed Silk as a woman who wanted more than life had offered her, so she was going to take it in any way possible. Her Silk was a confident and ambitious woman, straining against the boundaries society had laid out for her. She doesn’t understand why she makes people uncomfortable when she refuses to fit into the boxes they try to force her into and just tries harder to win them over using oomph and chutzpah. Nobody puts Silk in a corner.
So, is The Dirty Picture the best film of the year? No. But I think it’s by far the most important one and definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it yet.