Set against the colorful backdrop of the South film
industry of the '80s, The Dirty Picture examines the meteoric rise and steep fall of the screen sensation, Silk Smitha (Vidya Balan). The siren knew her audiences, and it didn’t seem like anything would stop the fiercely ambitious starlet, till it did, in the shape of unrequited love. To the world, she was the queen of sensuality. But at heart, Silk was just another woman craving true love.

Screen siren's biopic a little too loud to be effective.

A gaudy, 'pitfalls-of-fame’ melodrama that taps the same careful-what-you-wish-for themes as Showgirls (1995), Boogie Nights (1997) and A Star is Born (1954), Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture crafts a fanciful, fitfully entertaining version of the rise and fall of Kollywood sexpot Reshma 'Silk’ Smitha.

Perhaps the heightened romanticism and giddy stylings inherent to Indian cinema dictated that subtlety was never going to be an option for the biopic. Given the wild ride that Smitha enjoyed in the 1980s as the country’s most popular starlet, the flamboyance and grand characterisations that Luthria employs are not altogether unwarranted. But even by Bollywood standards, there are some over-the-top flourishes that seriously undermine the sad story of the film industry’s exploitation and abandonment of an ambitious but unprepared girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

What keeps the film grounded is a remarkably transformative performance by Vidya Balana as Silk. First seen as a bubbly small-town girl with starry visions, Balana soon morphs into a jaded, rejected has-been, racked by the effects of substance abuse and a defiant personality. Balana embraces the inevitable physical effects of Silk’s self-medicated lifestyle; her face grows wider and her waistline balloons (all too realistically). Such freedom with an actress’ ample girth should be of no note, of course, but it is a shock to see how open Balana is willing to be in the name of her craft.

The depiction of Silk’s mental deterioration is similarly insightful, but Luthria does Balana no favours with some overwrought staging. Silk, stumbling through the crowded streets having fled the clutches of an opportunistic porn purveyor, sees her younger self reflected in windows and puddles in one of the film’s better moments, but her interaction with one-dimensional support players is rote at best. (Tusshar Kapoor as the romantic screenwriter archetype and Naseeruddin Shah as the ageing, egotistical matinee idol are the hardest done by in Rajat Arora’s uneven script.)

The meta nature of The Dirty Picture ensures fans of Bollywood and Tamil cinema will find much to enjoy. Although inconsistent as a barbed satire of '80s Indian film industry practices, there are enough sycophantic producers, spurned lovers, rabid fans and pretentious directors (most notably Emraan Hashmi’s romantic foil, Abraham) to convey the less-than-loving take on the venal shallowness of the film biz.

Vidya Balana’s star-turn is by far the biggest asset and real essence of Luthria’s film. Silk Smitha made almost 50 films over 13 years; despite being an enormous star to the working class who adored her rags-to-riches back story and on-screen lustiness, she never earned the respect of her peers or the national press. (Silk’s feud with critic/columnist Nayla [Anju Maheendra], a character clearly inspired by the iconic film commentator Devyani Chaubal, makes for an interesting but unexplored subplot). Balana captures the conflicted life and subsequent torment of a young woman unprepared for the realities of her dreams. Had Luthria’s film fully committed to the painful truth as much as its leading lady, it may have honoured Smitha’s memory far more substantially.


2 hours 24 min
In Cinemas 02 December 2011,