Even without knowing the now denied Silk Smitha association The Dirty Picture is a road well travelled. A young girl runs away to become a star and fame changes her life, not always for the better. Vidya Balan delivers a sensational performance in every meaning of the word. I can’t imagine any other current day actress in the role. She gives Silk a robust earthiness that is a delight to watch and her performance rescues the film from the danger of being a mere ode to sleaze.
Vidya doesn’t rely on just hip thrusting and heaving her ample chest. Despite being lightly sketched as a character, Silk grows and changes and the subtle nuances that illustrate this are all in the acting. Silk starts off Reshma, a quick witted attention seeker who doesn’t care how she gets noticed as long as she gets into the movies. She is outrageous in a ridiculous attempt at being sexy, using lewd tongue gestures and whip fondling to show she is a very bad girl. Her performances in the films within the film become more realistic and practiced as her off screen relationships develop. Silk becomes a real vamp as she delivers what men want but does it in her own style, on and off screen. Through it all, she rarely loses her joyous smile and the wicked sparkle in her eyes. She keeps her cheerfully smutty humour intact, simulating an orgasm and then winking at the director as they joke like schoolboys about who she was imagining. When her story takes the inevitable turn for the tragic, Vidya has a maturity and subtlety that makes the resolution genuinely moving. She shows Silk’s heartbreak, anger and her resignation.
So I have to mention Vidya’s boobs. Yes, they are front and centre for a lot of her screen time. When Silk is performing a dance or scene, putting herself on display, the camera crawls over her body in a voyeuristic way. But if Silk is at home or not on show, the focus is usually more on her face or a full body shot. I was pleased to see that distinction from the unadulterated sleaze of the films Silk was making. She has no false modesty about why men look at her, and she happily uses her body to make an impression. Silk doesn’t just fall into bed with anyone, but she doesn’t see any reason not to when she is interested. Vidya has the ample curves of a 70s item bombshell and exudes confidence. She also shows the physical changes of a woman aging and paying the price for some riotous living, and that helps make Silk more sympathetic.
Naseruddin Shah is ‘Smashing’ Surya, a parody of aging 1970s Tamil film heroes. He is a narcissist and sleazebag, wanting this fresh piece of meat but turning on her when Silk’s notoriety starts to eclipse his fame. His performance is very good but he has played this kind of aging womaniser so often that I felt it was a bit stale, silly cowboy hats notwithstanding.
Emraan Hashmi is director Abraham. He narrates a lot of the film in a voiceover that sounds bored and it was unsubtitled at times which annoyed me. Abraham represents the arty side of film making and professes to hate Silk. His character is so vague that his motivations are muddled or not evident. When he and Silk eventually bury the hatchet, he does seem more relatable but I don’t think Emraan added anything to the film.
Tusshar Kapoor is also in a thankless role as Surya’s spineless skivvy-wearing younger brother Ramakant. He completes a love triangle but again a weakly written character and a so-so performance left the element of tension lacking. Tusshar did have a fun scene when he cut loose and danced to Silk’s signature song but that was about it for him.
These men represent different attitudes to Silk – the predatory, the judgemental and the romantic. She is the subject of desire, hatred and gossip but is blissfully unaware for ages as she only looks at pictures of herself and never reads the scathing articles. Silk is a huge fan of Silk. When Surya says she has no place in a home only in someone’s bed, that is how she is seen by ‘society’. It is only when Silk’s relationship with Surya ends that she starts to think about the implications of being notorious. That breakup is the catalyst for a downward spiral into drinking and wild behaviour as her career falters. She is surrounded by men who want her, but none who really like her. That’s what made me sad.
The story is the traditional rags to riches, and the exploitation of a woman providing an embodiment of sexual fantasy is not really surprising either. There are some really interesting bits as the movie industry is critiqued, and the script has some funny one-liners. Even though Rajat Arora has some zingers in the dialogue, the main characters lack depth and the way the story is told is quite stilted. There isn’t quite enough tension between the three men and Silk, although the brothers have some good scenes as Ramakant is forced to bow to his older superstar sibling. I’ve mentioned the voiceover by Abraham and director Milan Luthria uses other narrative devices that made me feel distanced. Nayla, a gossip columnist, often appears to make prophetic statements about Silk but rarely interacts with the scandalous actress. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it really doesn’t fit to have this Greek chorus of one pop up and comment. I really liked Anju Mahendru in the role of Nayla. She made the gossip queen a strong and vivid presence, a woman who had seen it all before and only cared as much as it contributed to her next headline. Maybe it is a characterisation drawn from her experiences?
The retro style music by Vishal-Shekhar is lots of fun as it is mostly used for Silk’s item numbers. I don’t think there are any future classics in the soundtrack but I loved seeing the cheesy picturisation to the Bappi Lahiri and Shreya Ghoshal duet on Ooh La La. Ishq Sufiana is quite lovely but I don’t think it was necessary to have the 80s style picturisation complete with Emraan in a see through shirt. It felt like an afterthought. Nakka Mukka is used as a recurring theme for Silk, and it encapsulates her energy and physicality. The art direction is great, and the costumes are straight out of films from the 70s and 80s. There are lots of references to famous dances or scenes, and I had a great time trying to place the original. Alas, there was no Chiranjeevi-esque dashing lycra clad hero for this Silk.
When I heard about this film and that Vidya had been cast I did wonder about the dancing as I’ve never found her to be terribly good. That question is neatly dealt with when an assistant director criticises her for missing a beat and his producer says ‘Never mind the beat, look at that heat’.
Silk said it best – Audiences want three things; entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. And Vidya as Silk is entertainment.