The Dirty Picture

Vidya
Director: Milan Luthria

Cast: Vidya Balan, Naseerudin Shah, Emran Hashmi, Tusshar Kapoor, Anju Mahendroo

Indian Express rating:**1/2

Why this Silk-u Silk-u, di? This is the question that came flooding in as I watched `The Dirty Picture', the `sort-of' biopic of Southern Siren Silk Smitha, as essayed by Vidya Balan.

`Sort-of' because the filmmakers have been saying that it is `not really' a biopic, even if the lead character is called Silk, who is shown doing what the legendary real-life Silk Smitha did, breaking into the Southern film industry through the oldest way in the book. By using her stunning sexuality to get the men hooked. Ageing actors, sulky directors, canny producers, all rode in on her to get the audience in. Which they did, in droves, just to see Silk burn up the ersatz waterfall in the studio, or steam up the theatre by just coming on—in her bursting duskiness, earthiness, rawness. There were many like Silk, but there was only one Silk. That was the time when Silk was sex, and sex was Silk, a perfect synonym.

Making a film on Silk, and her overpoweringly sensual aura, is all of a piece with the love affair we are currently having with the 80s, and the iconic stars of that era. And Balaji's continuing tryst with the decade, after `Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai'. Even though the real Silk would have been deeply amused at the ironic positioning of herself at the centre of her own story, given that she nearly always played at the periphery, in second-fiddle roles to the virginal heroine, and the macho hero, the tale was always going to be one that one day would need telling. That's why Silk-u,di. And, da.

But in just quite this way? What `The Dirty Picture' does is to place Vidya Balan and her heaving bosom, complete with the dirtier, orgiastic `ha-aaa' sound, so much a fixture of so many oomphy 80s tracks, at the centre of the narrative. Which is fine, and we are quite taken in by the sight for a while. But then we start looking for something more, and find it, only towards the end, only very fleetingly.

The reason why Silk's story was so fascinating, and by extension, Balan's portrayal of Reshma (the ambitious junior artist) who morphs into Silk (the sultry male magnet) should have been, was because Silk was not just skin. Underneath, by all accounts, she was as vulnerable as anyone else, looking for love and acceptance, and coping with betrayal. In a nicely done sequence, almost towards the end, the film shows us Silk and the man who-could-have-been-the-one, leaning into each other, feeling their way into each other, discovering what lies beneath.

That is an instant, but all-too brief, hook. It halts the film in its tracks, all predictive text till then, and gives us a glimpse of the character under the grimy-glitzy surface. Balan is as effective as the film allows her to be, and within those constraints, she shows us an actor trying to be true : she lets her stomach spill over without sucking it in, knowing full well that the male gaze mostly and willingly switches between boob and butt. But, and this is where the film falters, not going where it should have, into the rage-and-pain-and real-feeling territory.

The men in the film-- Naseer as the ageing roué in tight white-pants-and-shiny-shirt, Tusshar as his wimpish younger brother, Emran as the director who loves-and-hates-- are one-note. And is Anju Mahendroo trying to be Devyani Chaubal, yesteryear queen of gossip? Or stardusty Shobhaa? Whatever, she's been sharper before. The writing is confused as to point of view and weightage, and post-interval, like most Bollywood films, `The Dirty Picture', dives.

What makes us watch, despite everything—the overheating, the overwriting-- is Vidya Balan, who dares to go where not too many leading ladies have. This is her film. But it would have been a better, braver film if it had let her go all the way, not just in bed.

shubhra.gupta@expressindia.com

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