The Dirty Picture: A Review

The Dirty Picture – Dir: Milan Luthria; *ing: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Emraan Hashmi, Tusshar

The bust defence

Recently, former supermodel Elle Macpherson – referred to as The Body in high-fashion circles – was instructed by Italian Vogue, with more than a touch of schadenfreude, to move over and make way for some young thing called Karlie Kloss who has been declared, rather unimaginatively, The (new) Body. This has nothing to do with the film under review of course, except to suggest that in instances where a woman’s physical being is treated as a commodity, it apparently has a short shelf life, ultimately not only expendable but also easily and unceremoniously replaced. This is just one of the excremental facts of life that come to mind when watching The Dirty Picture, Milan Luthria’s lively but equally discomfiting follow-up to the glamourously gritty Once Upon A Time In Mumbai. (Very) loosely based on the rags-to-riches-to-rags tale of 80s South Indian filmi sex siren Silk Smitha, the film ably demonstrates Luthria’s strengths as a filmmaker, the most obvious of which is his knack for locating the ballsiest, no-frills elements of his story and magnifying those in fairly broad cinematic strokes. More often than not, in favouring sensation over subtext, he does somewhat overshoot the heart of the tale, making him more Mickey Spillane than Joseph Conrad, but this also lends his work a certain disarming honesty that works especially well in Dirty Picture.

Reshma (Balan) runs away from her village with dreams of being a film star clouding her vision. She quickly realizes though, that for her kind of woman, the only way into the movies is through her ample cleavage. Undeterred, she asserts herself before she can be made victim, capitalizing on (but therefore also controlling) her body as her ticket to stardom, which does come albeit in the form of soft-core sexploitation cinema. But stardom is stardom, never mind how it comes about. Now re-christened Silk, she catches the eye of South superstar Suryakant (Shah) and sparks fly, both on and off screen, his non-single marital status notwithstanding. Her lover’s brother (Tusshar) is also smitten and – misguidedly – tries to make an honest woman out of her. The only man seemingly immune to her charms is ‘serious’ filmmaker Abraham (Hashmi) whose arthouse sensibilities are offended by her crass, sensationalist ones. Silk also realizes soon enough that though she has made it, the nature of her work will always keep her an outcast both within the industry as well as in life, ogled, used but never truly accepted. As friends and fame start to abandon her and look towards greener, leaner, younger pastures, Silk hits a downward spiral…

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of how Luthria has framed Silk’s story is that despite the lurid subject matter, the innuendo-heavy dialogue, and the flamboyant narrative style, it is never exploitative or sleazy. On the contrary, the film is squarely in its protagonist’s corner, never less than sympathetic to her and also to the larger issues at play that her character represents. Silk is part of a world where men’s attitudes dictate the lives of women; women who must be desirable but not desirous, sexy but not sexual, and certainly not in possession of their destinies or even their own bodies. If a woman is provocative, it is her dignity that will get tarnished, and the men who leer at her will do so without consequence. And if she oversteps her pre-defined place in society, then she’d best be prepared to be a pariah, forever relegated to the peripheries. That we identify with such a potentially polarizing central figure as Silk is due in no small part to Vidya Balan’s astonishing performance – she is funny, she is fiery, she is utterly fearless. At once vulnerable and steely, the actress sheds not only her inhibitions but also the accoutrements of the Bollywood glamour masquerade, courageously piling on the weight and then displaying the results without a shred of coyness or vanity. It is a tour de force that helps us to forgive the film’s narrative inconsistencies and lack of nuance.

Ooh la la indeed!

Cult: Bhumika (1977) – Based on the memoirs of 40s Marathi stage and screen star Hansa Wadkar, Shyam Benegal’s haunting film features a star-making turn from Smita Patil.

Current: Rockstar – Further ruminations on the cost of fame, with Ranbir Kapoor as the troubled protagonist.

Coming Attraction: Heroine – Madhur Bhandarkar, of ‘Fashion’ infamy, will direct Kareena Kapoor in this exposé on the Hindi film industry.

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