The Silk Root


Forget the dancing star and sex bomb.  Poorva Rajaram unravels Silk Smitha, the actress

Silk Smitha
Sexier than thou Silk Smitha

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE Silk Smitha’s pre-The Dirty Picture newsworthiness, the makers of the film certainly didn’t. Every year on her death anniversary, the Malayalam channel Asianet runs footage of the walls of her Chennai house. TV9 Kannada plays a gratuitously morose hour-long documentary succinctly titled Sex Bomb Silk Smitha’s Ups and Downs. The Dirty Picture is now in the awkward position of being a shade less popular and newsy than Silk Smitha herself. One happy truth about the Silk Smitha legacy is its immunity to a movie like The Dirty Picture. At the very least, strategic south Indians will swat away the interference of a Hindi biopic.

A few minutes spent on YouTube can teach you something else important about Silk Smitha’s rather vigorous cultural sway. In the murky netherworld of search engine optimisation, the words Silk Smitha provide astronomical mobility. Unrelated videos tag themselves with Silk Smitha, hoping for that flicker of viralhood. So, nothing excuses the incredibly well-cut The Dirty Picture trailer, saying “Silk will make you go wild.” Silk has probably already made you go wild. But it is, after all, the purpose of trailers to state the obvious.

The marketing rhetoric of The Dirty Picture has had to take a sharp Uturn, in part due to Silk Smitha’s brother’s well-publicised objections. Balaji Telefilms now warns us that The Dirty Picture is inspired by an era, not a person. Yet, the name of the protagonist (Vidya Balan) is now inescapably Silk. Perhaps the legal tussle over the movie has unwittingly pointed us in the right direction. The key to watching The Dirty Picture without instant apoplexy might be to let go — to not dignify it as an authoritative reading on Silk Smitha’s life. Most of all, to let go of the demand for logical realism. If you don’t, you might find yourself in a perplexing thicket: why is she speaking Hindi? Why’s she so thin and fair? Why on earth would Emraan Hashmi hate such a sexy woman?

In all the legal, marketing and artistic posturing that has filled our newspapers for the past six months, the only whiff of verisimilitude (if that’s your thing) left is that quaint old thing — the Silk Smitha movie starring Silk Smitha. Once you watch some Silk Smitha films (not rely on the memory of having seen Sadma once) two myths will dissolve before your eyes. First, that she was just a ‘dancing star’ (the term being used in The Dirty Picture promotions) and secondly, that she was a sex bomb (not that the semantic boundaries around such a epithet are very clear). Both framings forget that she acted a lot, in the entirely banal sense of the word.

Layanam, 1989, Malayalam
Layanam, a fetished cult hit, is a perfectly good soft porn movie that rather prematurely disintegrates into a real movie. Its scriptwriting intentions are noble, though. Silk Smitha plays (true to genre) a lonely widow in a large house. But, in a fresh twist, her closest companion appears to be a Maruti 800, which she uses to charge around backwaterridden Kerala. Silk Smitha’s remarkably self-possessed performance shows us both her outer sexual confidence and her inner anxiety over being lonely.

Enter Nandu, a boy too young to drive the aforementioned Maruti 800. He dutifully fantasises about Silk and rejects two amazingly unsubtle counter-seductions, one woman accosts him in his sleep wearing sexy lingerie and the other hoses herself down with water and asks him to undress her. But the everloyal Nandu has eyes only for the sariclad, chaste-by-contrast Silk. Things go fine until Silk’s husband returns and the couple decides, out of no rational necessity, to kill themselves.

Vidya Balan
Sexier than thou Vidya Balan

Hopefully, The Dirty Picture will take a cue from its title and acknowledge the cinematic cross-pollination between the categories soft-porn, just sexually explicit and family entertainment that commonly took place in the Silk Smitha era. It’s a good idea to pay homage to the ABCD-grade alphabet soup better known as South Indian cinema.

Halli Meshtru, 1992, Kannada
Silk Smitha has probably never been better dressed than in Halli Meshtru. Mercifully, her clothes don’t suffer from their usual variability. Four different film industries with fluctuating budgets have led to the odd fashion disaster. Her polychromatic, nylon saris with correspondingly spare blouses are impossibly hot. She is the teacher of everyone’s (except the male protagonist’s) fantasies. Her character’s name? Silk. “Mysore silks?” enquires one old man.

He is not wrong. Silk Smitha is almost solely as a breath of urbanity. In this unhurried movie, Silk lands in the village, wreaks havoc and then innocently decides to give rakhis to every available man. Towards the end, Silk eases her way out of the village, having shown no dependency or desire.

Moondram Pirai, 1982, Tamil Sadma, 1983, Hindi 
It’s hard to imagine the nefarious factors that led to Moondram Pirai being pronounced Silk Smitha’s only critical success. Perhaps, critical acclaim was shorthand for her ability to play temptress without resorting to caricature. She was generously helped by the earnestness with which both versions addressed sexual desire. After watching the film, you are unlikely to ever take a Band-Aid off without recalling Kamal Hassan squirming at Silk’s touch-mythighs advances. Silk also pulled off something impossible — she got the audience to believe she was for real while wearing a ridiculous tie-up blouse with shorts in cold, coniferous Ooty.

ONE CAN only hope Mughal-e-Azam wasn’t sold as an Anarkali biopic. “Look! A badass woman! (and she was real too!)” is a marketing oddity specific to the currently evolved/devolved stage of the Hindi film industry. Years of Bollywood operating along the lines of the Hollywood studio system and a new corporate cocksureness has given us shiny finished products like The Dirty Picture — films without full-fledged mainstream appeal borne out of a studious approach to packaging, feigned sensationalism, audience receptivity and sales. Who will bet against The Dirty Picture recovering its cost and more?

In an ideal world, shamelessness will not be resold. Since it is regularly retraded, a little cuteness inevitably creeps into every iteration

The relatively new surge in biopics has created a uniquely Bollywood genre of the fiction-biopic (Raajneeti and Guru are examples). And perhaps it’s a good thing our filmmakers don’t attempt the well-intentioned, psychologically probing realistic biopic and lose something fantastical and airy. It must follow that even a film with no higher purpose than shiny clothes, sex scenery and mild biographical leeching cannot be scoffed at.

Neither can the work done by Balaji Telefilms and Ekta Kapoor. Movie in, movie out, Balaji presents a coherent take on sexual matters: simply that movies should be made about them. But, there are genuine artistic consequences to marketing nostalgia. In an ideal world, shamelessness will not be resold. Since it is regularly retraded, a little cuteness inevitably creeps into every iteration.

Unlike movies, music videos always benefit greatly from the overuse of aesthetic appropriation and nostalgia. Cute in under four minutes is a fail-safe formula. Hence the instant kick from watching Vidya Balan and company in Ooh La La. At the movies, though, it is slightly shameful not to produce your own shamelessness, the way Silk Smitha always did.


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