Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Dirty Picture: Entertainment, Entertainment, Entertainment

Better late than never, right? I finally saw The Dirty Picture.

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.


Sal said...

I was waiting for this review! I agree with you; the film is okay, but Vidya is transcendent. There is not a moment in the film that she doesn't own. Her Silk is compelling, complex and phenomenally sexy, and this last part is of great importance. I think Vidya has more sex appeal in this film, even the "fall portion of the narrative, than most actors can convey in the tiniest swimsuits and with the most ripped abs. That face, the trademark wink, the dancing - she's perfect. To those who think she lacks star quality, I recommend this film - Vidya is a superstar!
I actually think Emraan's angle in the story needed to be stronger; for once in my life I wanted more Emraan Hashmi in a movie. His complete domination of the last few reels would have made more sense if his adversarial relationship with Silk had been fleshed out more throughout the film. Regarding the mediocrity of his performance, I think he's not much worse than several of the mainstream actors. He's no Dilip Kumar by any means, but I'd say he's on par with the likes of Salman and John. Furthermore, casting him is a shrewd choice for these mid-budget middle-of-the-road movies, because he is a huge draw in the smaller towns and cities.

Filmi Girl said...

@Sal I'm glad you agree!!

I can see your point re: Emraan and adding more of his story to the film (and perhaps less of Naseer and Tusshar) would definitely have made the overall narrative better. And, yeah, he's about on par with John but then John isn't really Dilip Kumar, either. LOL!!

Do you know who would have been perfect in this role? Kunal Khemu. That guy can act.

Sal said...

Ooh, yes please! More Kunal Khemu. He's so committed to every role he takes on. Poor guy can't catch a break because most of us still remember him as a kid. :(

Mette said...

Received the DVD last week, and I'm going to watch it soon. I'll get back to your review then :).

Bastard Keith said...

This is a terrific and incisive review for a film that achieves so much that it doesn't need another ass-kissing. It needs analysis.

You get to the heart of my major issue with the film: Luthria just isn't a very interesting director. It's less that he's unable to sustain narrative tension (which is a problem), more that his choices as a filmmaker are DULL. His shot selections, cutting and blocking often feel clumsy to the point of apathy. Even Ooh La La didn't POP enough on a visceral level.

For all that, though, you have Vidya. Vidya, who has never been more gloriously fierce. Vidya, who rips into this part as if she'll never have another lead role. She deserves every damn award going, as far as I'm concerned.

The Tusshar Kapoor performance, I hadn't thought of it as gay. But it makes total sense. I actually want to go back and watch it again just to look at the gay icon worship angle.

Emraan....I don't know, I thought he was terrific as the envious artiste, and I thought the use of his experience as the film's POV was actually an interesting choice and not at odds with the film's aims.

Bear with me.

Working in burlesque, and especially with a fiercely feminist wife, so much of our job is acknowledging and recontextualizing the male gaze. For both of us, looking at the film from Abraham's point of view only drove home that so much misogyny is generated by a rage at that which men can neither possess nor control. Abraham detests her because she is a sexual outlaw, and he desires her for the same reason. The narration seems to concede that no one will ever truly understand or possess Silk. In the end, Abraham fails, and it's largely BECAUSE he tries to "save" her from herself. He goes from furious rival to attempted savior the moment she shows weakness, but Silk simply takes what she needs from him and goes about her business. It's refreshing, and it gives the narration a touch of impotence that can't be totally unintentional.

Silk's suicide, like Hunter S. Thompson's, guarantees that she dies as she lived: on her own terms. And note that from the film's perspective, she ends up in heaven. A suicide ending up in heaven. Think about that.

So I thought that the film's POV achieved a couple of things: it gave the audience that would come only for the boobs a window in AND held them responsible for their gaze. In this film, "soft-core" resembles nothing so much as burlesque. So perhaps it was our careers doing the subtext for us, but we saw it as a burlesque that coaches the male gaze into an understanding of who really holds the agency in the arrangement. This film is as much about the male gaze as it is about Silk.

Phew! When was the last time a Bollywood film generated so much talk about gender politics? I know it's a day since you posted, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Filmi Girl said...

@Bastard Keith OH THANK GOD - a comment not having to do with Slap Gate.

First of all, yes, Luthria is not an interesting director at all. He had the same problem (IMHO) in Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai which should have been much more boss than it was.

I would LOVE to see if you agree with my gay reading of Tusshar's character. Having spent a fair amount of time with gay men who enjoy divas, it was the first thing that popped to mind. He doesn't want to touch her - he just wants to imbibe her fierceness. Why else would he have a closet full of "diva-spiration" pictures of Silk?

Both you and @Sal have raised sort of similar issues re Abraham's character and I definitely see where you are coming from. If there framing had been stronger - MORE Abraham in the beginning - maybe I would have seen it differently? Like if they had made it more clear that he was an audience surrogate and not just the third of three beaus...? Or maybe if the film had started with Abraham mourning Silk's death and set it in flashback? I don't know. Whatever the reason was, the framing didn't work for me.

One thing that another commenter raised and I kind of agree with, too, is that Silk's death by overdose was almost too weak. The actual Silk hung herself - a more active and brutal method than depicted.

I'm definitely glad I saw it and I'm very glad it's getting attention and praise... even if the film isn't the greatest piece of cinema of all time. :)

Bastard Keith said...

The more I think of your Tusshar reading, the more I think you're really onto something. I thought his performance was the least interesting of Silk's three suitors, but part of that was the lack of chemistry. Viewing it with your theory in mind, it not only makes sense, it takes everything to another level. I'm a hard sell with "just watch it like this and it'll make sense," but you totally sold me.

As far as the framing, I always take character narration as suggesting an audience surrogate. So I went with it. Abraham's move from bitter observer to helpless participant seemed a fairly deliberate and interesting move on the part of the filmmakers. But I can see that if you don't go with it from the start, it could seem arbitrary.

As far as the suicide...I dunno. The point for me was that she made the call and checked out as she pleased. I'm not sure if a more brutal method would have been a net plus or minus. It could have been a refreshing break with filmi melodrama to go hard there. Or it could have disrupted things irreparably. I can't say. Either way, the decision belonged to Silk, and that was what was important to me.

Bastard Keith said...

As far as Slap Gate? No comment. I'm waiting to hear the whole story. Though Shirish calling SRK "faggot" made me sad.

Filmi Girl said...

@bastard keith Something about how Tusshar interacted with her just made it clear in my head. I doubt any journalists had the guts to ask Tusshar or Milan about it point blank but I think there is enough subtext there to be pretty confident in my reading.

And yes on Silk's life being Silk's life to begin and end. The decision was always hers. She may not be able to control the world but she could control that. Actually, the one scene I had a bit of an issue with in the film was Silk being inebriated at the porn shoot. I think it would have been much more powerful if she had decided to do it or not to do it... At least Abraham wasn't the one to rescue her. They got that part right.

And re Slap Gate... yeah, that was uncalled for, definitely. Would love to see them both apologize... two grown men acting like children. Strange world when SANJAY DUTT is the voice of reason in a debate.

Sal said...

This is such a brilliant discussion. I am really intrigued by the reading of Tusshar's character as gay; he actively refuses to get completely physical with her, and this interpretation of his character helps one make sense of that refusal. My problem with the suicide scene was that this girl lived on sugar cubes for days on end; surely she could have reinvented herself or played a different sort of innings? Add to that the fact that she chose, if I remember correctly, to die in a red sari - as a bride - just makes it iffier, somehow, for me. Perhaps if she had reappropriated the narrative of her life at the end through some device - a letter? full-on sex goddess costume? - her suicide would have bothered me less. I really didn't want my take-away from the film to be "she was amazing and fierce and ambitious, but in the end, she just wanted to be loved" (some of this phrasing might actually be from the film's official synopsis.)
Re: Milan Luthria's lacklustre direction, I agree. I also blame Rajat Aroraa; the man can write a "punch dialogue", but he has no idea how to keep the wheels of his screenplay rolling along briskly.

Mette said...

So, I finally watched the film and read your review. First of all, I want to say that I agree with you Sal, the choice of dying in a read sari and everything was weird and kind of destroyed part of the female power, in my opinion. When I saw how she put make up on and everything, I too thought she would dress herself like a vamp.
Also, Emraan Hashmi as a narrator was a very bad choice, not only because the story loses some of its power and credibility as a female-centered film, but also because the dialogues do not contribute to the film at all, they're just plain annoying.

Vidya Balan has proved that she is one of the best actresses in Mumbai, and the talent that she showed glimpses of finally shows to full extend.
I don't think that The Dirty Picture is the best film of 2011 either, but it definitely has the best performance of the year.

Your review was spot on! (Oh, and Tusshar's character was gay, basta).

Twyla Tracey said...

I have just watched this film for the first time today and actually just came across it on Netflix. To be honest I was not familiar with Silk Smitha at all until thia film. Since, I have become obsessed to say the least googling as much as I can to become familiar with her story.

This being said I absolutely love Vidya Balan in this film. She really brought her character and Silk to life on the screen. I have to say I agree on Tusshar's character, definitely gay!!! He was looking for an "approved" woman to bring to his family. My thoughts are he was so concerned about their approval probably because they were suspicious of him being homosexual and when she proved to be nonconforming he dropped her like a hot potato. I have to say Emraan's role really left me confused. I have to watch it over but his voice over seemed to come out of nowhere almost to me. That being said I'm going to contradict my last statement and say if looking at it from the point of view that she isn't here to confirm how she felt or what she was thinking then it makes sense to get it from a point of view and if at the end he is to look like a hero who loved/wanted to save her then who better to use. Once again his role should have definitely been made stronger and not seemed to centre around Surya.

On the point of her suicide the wedding dress and makeup made sense to me as well because even though she was very comfortable with herself and her femininity she craved love and to be a wife. This was evident In her relationship with Surya, she kept commenting on his love and only being available to her in the night. Also when she quotes the brother (Tusshar's character) I can't remember the exact wording but where she says she's only for the bed or something along those lines. I would love to hear your thoughts. It's so sad that she felt the need to end her life at such a young age, I would have loved to see what would have become pf her career today.

Please explain to me also, in the movie they make it seem like her career failed after her 3 character role which led to her extreme depression and inevitably to her suicide but in Wikipedia that role which I believe is Silk, Silk, Silk was early in her career. Am I missing something? I would love any clarification you have on the topic.

Thanks so much for ur thoughts in advance.

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