An aging male superstar pompously asks Silk, the protagonist in “The Dirty Picture,” “What’s so special about you? I’ve been with 500 women.”
She curls her brightly painted lips into a smirk and answers, “But have you ever been with the same woman 500 times?”
Vidya Balan is terrific as Silk, who fires brazen zingers throughout “The Dirty Picture” with chutzpah that would have made 1930s Hollywood temptress Mae West proud.
The Bollywood movie is ostensibly based on the life of “Silk” Smitha, a southern Indian femme fatale who gained notoriety in the late 1980s playing sexually charged roles in otherwise conservative films featuring virginal heroines.
Before India’s economic liberalization in the 1990s, when there was no satellite television or Internet, amorous boys would sneak into cinemas to catch Silk on screen, only to find their fathers in the stalls.
While she inspired clones such as “Polyester” Padmini and “Nylon” Nalini, Silk was the center around which the audience wove its sexual fabric.
Milan Luthria directs “The Dirty Picture” with a light hand that celebrates the era’s campy cinema. Rajat Arora’s writing has enough double entendres to keep you laughing as Silk skips from one bed to another, on and off screen.
A host of supporting characters include veteran Naseeruddin Shah relishing the role of an egotistic matinee idol.
When Shah’s character Suryakant, who favors roles as college-going young men in spite of his leathery skin, is told he will be playing an orphan in his next film, he says that formula is stale: “That’s so ’60s. We are in the ’80s. Give my character a sister, and then let her be raped so I can take revenge.”
His sycophants respond by calling him a genius, but he laments, “It’s a curse, it’s a curse.”
“The Dirty Picture” doesn’t shy away from the hypocrisy of the audience who queued to watch Silk but would never accept her publicly as anything more than an evil influence. On screen, she was almost always a vamp, a corrupter of young men, a heart-breaker who lured the hero away from the demure heroine.
Just as Mae West’s bawdy Hollywood films waned following the enforcement of the conservative Production Code in 1934, Silk’s star began to fade as the Indian economy opened its doors and cable TV provided an alternative for titillation.
Suryakant sums up her demise in the movie when he explains why Silk doesn’t need to be cast in his next film: “We can now make the heroine herself do what Silk does.”
The real Silk is said to have committed suicide in 1996, though the circumstances of her death have never been explained. “The Dirty Picture” stumbles while tracing her descent. The sequences seem rushed as Silk drinks, gains weight, dreams of a comeback and hurtles to her doom.
Balan’s performance is one of the bravest in Indian cinema. In an industry where heroines pride themselves on being a “size zero,” she is at ease displaying bulging love handles, plump thighs and enough cleavage to raise Federico Fellini from the grave.
She channels Silk’s visceral craving to be famous while asserting herself in a patriarchal world.
More importantly, a decade and a half after Silk’s death, Balan restores her humanity.
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“The Dirty Picture” is playing in India and in select theaters worldwide, including New York, London and Dubai.
(Pratish Narayanan writes about Indian cinema for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)