The Dirty Picture is a commercial Hindi film that may well be the smash hit of 2011. It is bold by the standards of commercial cinema in India, based on the tormented life of Silk Smitha, a poor girl who rose to stardom and great success in Tamil cinema, albeit after paying a great price in human terms. But the producers declare in the opening credits that the story doesn’t resemble the life of any character, living or dead!

Neither director Milan Luthria nor the principal producer Ekta Kapoor, who has had an unbroken run of success in the production of status quoist television serials, wanted to meddle with what was a juicy story, not really a tragic one, and a potential box-office bonanza! Ekta Kapoor, the producer with the Midas touch on TV, has proved to be right again, but something vital and, yes, human has been lost in the making of The Dirty Picture.

Luthria and his script-writer Rajat Arora have created the perfect masala-film where tears are shed quite easily on the death and therefore loss of a really sassy and sexy “Item Girl” in commercial cinema, a terrific dancer who brought in the audiences, “drugged” by the “sleaze” she offered on-screen.

The real Silk Smitha was for a while the toast of South Indian mainstream cinema. She had laya, a sense of tempo, grace, and a smouldering, incandescent presence. She could act when called upon to do so. The opportunities for acting were few and far between, but when they came along, she was more than up to it. One remembers her in the Hindi film Sadma set in a posh-ish boarding-school. She held her own opposite the brilliant and versatile Kamal Haasan. Not only did she dance beautifully in a “fantasy” sequence but acted sensitively without being bothered by the leading lady, Sridevi. Then the reigning queen of Hindi films, she had the juicier role, of a lost girl struck by amnesia and rescued by the handsome young school master (Kamal Haasan).

The Dirty Picture is about a poor, sexually exploited girl with a flair for dance who wants to break into films. Break in she does, by bedding the leading “hero” Surya Kant (Naseeruddin Shah), who is old and lecherous and hugely successful in a male-dominated film industry. He, in a sense, runs the film industry in Madras (now Chennai). The producers all fawn on him. His word is law.

She, Reshma/Silk, played by Vidya Balan, (the Smitha bit has been dropped in fear of a libel suit) takes matters in her own hands, barges into his dressing- room, caresses his thigh as he feigns unconcern, and says, “It’s believed you have had a ‘continuity’ with 500 women, Why don’t you have 500 ‘continuities’ with the same woman?’’

This open offer of sexual intercourse for a moment rattles the jaded old superstar. The next thing we see is that she has a starring role in his film. This kind of blatant propositioning has been included to mislead the viewer into believing that commercial Hindi cinema has grown up and that women can ask powerful men directly to sleep with them for reasons of expediency.

Such an action would probably have been beyond the real Silk Smitha. True, she was as literally hungry as Luthria’s Silk but even she would have been hard-pressed to show both her helplessness and with it, her burning ambition to get into the movies. Her sanskaras or cultural upbringing would perhaps have forced her to take a circuitous route to the same goal.

Silk in The Dirty Picture has the advantage of the backing of her director and script-writer, both pseudo-modern, who give off a false notion of Indian modernity. Neither Luthria nor Arora, would dare to question the debilitating effect the family, and by extension the nation, and a blind, pitiless God, have upon the creative and spiritual growth of an individual in India.

Silk Smitha never had the advantages that her on-screen reincarnation had. Her own religiosity prevented her from getting “laid” with impunity. It is true that that she was ruthlessly exploited sexually before she established herself, but it is highly unlikely that she would have made the first move.

The worlds of Silk Smitha and of Luthria’s version do, however, meet at one level. They can match each other for both literal and metaphorical loudness. Smitha’s professional world was crass and vulgar. Need one add that the decible levels were as deafening as they are in the film? Luthria, like many of his colleagues, believes that every drop of emotion in the story ought to be milked and the best way is to be as loud and melodramatic as possible. Experience has taught him that in the commercial cinema the more over the top you are, the more likely the possibility of success.

There is, however one touch of novelty: the raunchiness that is passed off as an essential ingredient in the “realistic” depiction of Reshma/Silk’s world.

Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and now Bengali films reveal an increasing penchant for crudeness. It is generally believed in film industry circles that audiences enjoy crudity because most of their lives, even those of the deprived, are circumspect, to stretch the point a bit, even castrated.

Commercial films in India liberates the audience by pandering to its sexual fantasies. The Dirty Picture does a splendid job in this area.

But its one redeeming feature is that no matter how vulgar Reshma/Silk’s dialogues are, they are delivered with aplomb and a certain grace. For example, she tells her friend and sort-of mentor, Selva Ganesh (Rajat Sharma) also known as Kidda Babu, that she will do such an item number that the (male) audience will find it difficult to keep still in their loosened lungis, thereby suggesting the possibility of a mass erection. It could have gone out of hand but Vidya Balan says it with the right amount of nonchalance and poise.

Reshma/Silk in the film is a feisty character, but not a wily one. She is outwitted by people far more cunning than her and at ease in the murky world of show business. She is there because she literally has no alternative, being a poor, and at best, a barely literate woman. Those responsible for her meteoric rise in the film world see her as an object of sexual gratification rather than a woman of talent.

Her mentor and lover, the aged superstar Surya Kant, sees her as a terrific lay, and that’s it. There are strong parallels between the lives of Reshma/Silk and that of the tragic Silk Smitha. In The Dirty Picture, Silk overwhelms Surya Kant sexually so that she stays at the top. Too little is known about the life of the real SilkSmitha except for salacious gossip, whose veracity is at best dodgy.

There is another affecting parallel. In the film, Silk goes to see a film featuring her and is delighted to see the audience go crazy over her sizzling dance number, and then leaving in droves just before the “serious” part of the movie resumes. She is naïve enough to tell the truth to Surya Kant who, though stung to the quick, with practised ease does not respond.

One wonders how Silk Smitha would have reacted in a similar situation. Is the director, in connivance with his script-writer, having us on? Is there an attempt to prepare the viewer for a Hollywood kind of redemption? Is he trying to tell us what a brave and unfortunate girl Silk is, and how gallantly she is fighting impossible odds?

It is certainly possible that Silk Smitha enjoyed greatly all the adulation she got from the man in the street but would she have risked jeopardising her career by pulling her mentor’s leg? She knew what it took to get to the place that she did. She hated being treated as a piece of meat by the monstrous men who ran the film industry.

In The Dirty Picture, Reshma/Silk behaves like a cheeky young woman scoring a point over her much older lover. One is led to wonder if such characterisation can be seen as Luthria and Arora’s attempt to be seen as a modern film making duo, of course within the hidebound conventions of commercial Hindi cinema.

Reshma/Silk is miffed at being shoved into the bathroom immediately after sex with Surya Kant in his farmhouse when he gets a sudden phone call from his wife telling him that she is arriving shortly. What does Silk do? She takes up with Ramakant, Surya Kant’s kid brother, an aspiring script-writer!

Such petulance is all right in an inexperienced young thing unable to cope with rejection but Silk knows how it works and for her to behave in such a headstrong manner is bit of a contradiction, to say the least.

Sex, according to the current heartthrob of American pop music, Lady Gaga, is what makes the world go round. The Dirty Picture is mainly about the sexual pecadilloes of the powerful within the film industry, as was the professional life of Silk Smitha.

When she firmly established herself she thought it was time to bid goodbye to moneylenders, real and would be, and seek the genuine article—love. She never found it, although she had a friend in Dr Ramakrishna who helped her weather most of the storms in her life except the last, which resulted in her suicide. He was unable, perhaps, to advise her on business matters, or did his sage counsel fall on deaf ears?

Smarting under the insults heaped on her by powerful individuals in the industry, she acted in haste and took up film production. She was, in the language of the Mafia, being set up.


Her productions failed at the box-office, or possibly were made to; she was landed with huge debts. Unable to cope with the reversals, she killed herself. She said in her suicide note, “Nobody cared for me or treated me like a human being, only Dr Ramakrishna did.”

The Dirty Picture uses an easy kind of psychological shorthand. Reshma/Silk, unable to take Surya Kant’s rejection, decides to take him on by producing her own films.

It is made out as if she fails due to her own inexperience and changing audience tastes. This may not have been the truth about the real Silk Smitha.

In the film she goes out of the world on a note of defiance. In the real story, it is likely that she died broken and saddened beyond words.

Comparisons between the film and the purpose that inspired it ought to end here, but not without a final word to explicate the matter.

It is all right to have a smoking, drinking, randy, ambitious woman reach the top after a start in dire poverty. But it is compulsory to see her tumble down after reaching the pinnacle, and die in the process.

Her death, according to the current norms of desi feminism in Hindi cinema, must appear to be heroic, as in the case of The Dirty Picture.

The director and his script-writer may argue that their film is not about Silk Smitha but “inspired” by a woman like her. Luthria’s film seems to tell us that whatever you do as a woman in India to improve your lot, the dice is heavily loaded against you. This is, in a way, a confirmation of the status quo.

Caveats aside, Vidya Balan is superb as Reshma/Silk, as is Naseeruddin Shah as Surya Kant. The supporting cast is uniformly good, though Emraan Hashmi as Abraham, the director who hates and loves her, hams it up.