As Reshma aka Silk, Vidya Balan deserves every accolade in the book. She digs into the muck of her character’s life with both hands. She sports a lascivious wink and a million dollar smile for the glamour portion of Silk’s career, complete with aptly filling bodily dimensions, as she willingly slips into outlandish naughty 80’s costumes. Equally as compelling are her dramatic moments, demonstrating the insecurities Silk had with her acting abilities and the lure of the glamorous life. She is spot-on in a terribly difficult role.
Miss Balan effortlessly carries Silk’s iconic figure, camera flair and saucy attitude. She is as sassy as she is beautiful, a wanton libertine and damaged martyr to male lust who saw nothing wrong with peeling off for the camera. Whatever contrived scenario filmmakers placed her in - trussed up red robes with whips, frolicking with old men in faux cowboy attires, acting as a slutty schoolteacher, Silk’s smile seems as genuine and wholesome as sunshine. She doesn't mind lecherous photographers who ogle sweatily at her. In fact she enjoys posing for them.
It sounds like Silk led a very interesting life, which is why The Dirty Picture is a disappointing movie. Despite clocking in at more than two and a half hours, the film doesn’t give itself much breathing room to deconstruct a sexual icon. Director Milan Luthria and writer Rajat Arora (the duo who brought us Once upon a time in Mumbai) deliver the who, what and where of Silk’s life but are scant on the hows and whys. It's a shallow recounting of events without theme or purpose.
The Dirty Picture has a lot of ground to cover, detailing Silk’s rise to titillation glory, the various men in her life and her alcohol and drug abuse. But the script just layers one event on top of the other with a "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" structure that unfolds with little drama. Even the darkest events of Silk’s life - her eventual downfall and bipolar outbursts - play out without tension. The Dirty Picture thus becomes a sliver of a great movie, merely gliding above Silk’s life, content to present a quick portrait of a time in Indian cinema when the skimpy revolution was just beginning to arise.
Arora’s screenplay, and Vidya Balan’s reading of it, keeps everything on the surface, with very little exploration into motives or psyches. There is the merest hint of sexual abuse when Silk was young, and a subsequent child marriage. Surely those things helped carve Silk’s path in life (assuming they're true), but the film only introduces them so it can ignore them again.
But despite all its shortcomings, there's decent snapshots of the 80’s Indian cinema. In one scene megastar Surya (an incredible Naseeruddin Shah) hurls a currency note in the air, shoots it, and smirks as a bunch of coins fall on the floor. At its best, The Dirty Picture is a fun recreation of a time when kink had just arrived in the mainstream, pushed along by Silk and her bosom’s journey to superstardom. Take it as a slice of smut cinema and The Dirty Picture is sensationally dirty. Nearly every dialogue is laced with hilarious double entendre. Surya tells his seductress co-star Silk ‘Mai 500 ladkiyon ke saath tuning kar chuka hu’, to which she boldly replies ‘Par kya aapne ek ladki ke saath 500 baar tune kiya hai’.
Some of the dialogue is ferociously raunchy – Surya, when questioned about his philandering ways says ‘Uparwale ne neeche itna kuch diya hai, to thoda baantne me kya harz hai’. He also proceeds to add ‘Girls are like a government, you have to support them - kabhi left, kabhi right, kabhi center’. There are a lot of choli and pichkari jokes – a disgruntled arthouse filmmaker (Emraan Hashmi) upon seeing Silk’s soft core ambrosial dance yells ‘Reel kaat, nahi to aisi jagah kaatunga ki tu confuse ho jayega ki pant pehna hai ya ghaagra’.
Fun moments like these are brought down by some questionable scenes where characters face the camera and indulge in cringe worthy loud thinking. What’s worse is that some of the funny lines are attached to irritating ‘AHHAA’ sound effects that severely mar the sophistication of the comedy. It doesn’t help that Tushaar Kapoor serves no function in the film other than to look completely baffled in a few random shots.
But the biggest misdeed of The Dirty Picture is that it never establishes the downfall of Silk. Instead, a majority of the second half is squandered in needless frothy love story and an overlong romantic song. One moment Silk is at the top of her career and in the next she is kicked off a movie set. What happened in between? There's more to Silk than meets the eye, but you wouldn't know it from the soulless, pointless climax. The award ceremony scene, that plays right before the interval, brings interesting parallels between the enforced restraint and caged sexuality in Indian audiences, but they go unexplored.
Vidya Balan is so good here that I'm convinced she could have easily handled a more probing character study of Silk Smitha’s real personality beyond the superficial lip-licking. For that to have worked, though, Milan Luthria and Rajat Arora would have had to make a movie which actually questioned Silk’s motivations and her choices.
The Dirty Picture has a modestly enjoyable storyline, it just never goes anywhere with it. Frustratingly, it tells us what the protagonist did without telling us why. Those looking to bask in the heyday of 80’s so-bad-it's-good cinema will love this movie, but those looking for a deeper portrait of Silk Smitha are bound to be disappointed.
First published in Mumbai Boss