When the serious art-house filmmaker Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) makes it clear that he despises the gutsy rising star Silk (Vidya Balan), she retorts confidently: "You need three things for a successful film - entertainment, entertainment, entertainment...I am the entertainment." A wink, a mischievous smile, a well-timed pelvic thrust, and a slight lean over to show just enough cleavage. Silk uses all this and more to get what she's always wanted: fame. She runs away from home in a remote village the night before her wedding to Madras (Chennai) and ends up as the most desired star of South Indian films. Director Milan Luthria and writer Rajat Arora's The Dirty Picture is a thrilling ride, unapologetic yet never vulgar, into the life of Silk Smitha, a woman who reached dizzying heights of fame by banking on the one thing everyone wanted from her: sex.
What seems at the surface to be yet another film about the rise and fall of a star, strides seductively beyond that. It's the star in question here that makes all the difference. Balan's Silk is feisty, bold, confident yet keenly aware of and concerned with what others think of her. She just puts on the oomph and pretends not to care. Throw such a character into the cheesy, sleazy and garish world of 1980s Indian films - perhaps the most embarrassing decade for cinema - and the film takes a life of its own.
Luthria and Arora dive right into the eccentricities of the 1980s with relish. There's the superstar hero Suryakant (Naseeruddin Shah), worshipped by his fans long enough to have the most bloated ego in the business. When a nervous Silk messes up on her very first shoot with the star she's grown up lusting for, he angrily dismisses her, asking what makes her so special. "I've tuned 500 women before you," he boastfully adds. She inches closer and questions softly, “But have you tuned the same woman 500 times?” The writing, which would easily have veered into the realm of vulgarity, is kept sharp, edgy and most of all, fun. Arora fills the script with such tantalizing punchlines one after another, and the actors seem to be having so much fun saying them. The dialogues are saucy, designed to amuse and shock in equal parts.
Another strength of the script is that it doesn't just hover around the superficial. Luthria and Arora make one big, valid point. As a hardened star in the unpredictably vicious world of films, Silk uses her award felicitation to shame the entire film industry in one fell swoop. Brimming with anger, she points out the double standards of an industry that craves for sex and the shameless objectification of women in front of the camera or behind closed doors, but shuns it in the public eye. It's the same industry that is minting money off her body and sexuality but refuses to give her social ranking or respect in the hierarchy. The sleaze-mongers of the film industry aside, the film also makes it clear that Silk was never a victim. She was conscious of her decisions and steered her life the way she did, until she lost control of it and her stardom began to fade.
The makers of The Dirty Picture, producer Ekta Kapoor included, take interesting potshots at a whole range of character types. There's the resented but influential film critic Nayla, who makes a living by slamming Silk's career moves. In one scene, renowned producer Selva Ganesh (Rajesh Sharma) is actually pleased when Nayla rips his film to shreds in her review, saying: "If the critics hate my film that means I'll be making a lot of money." Constant jabs at film critics aside (ahem, we'll let it go this time), the art-house filmmaker Abraham also becomes a statement of sorts. His films might be popular at film festivals all over the world, but they screen to empty theaters in India. So, realizing the error of his ways, and desperate to take down Silk, he gives up on his cinema and embraces shameless masala as well.
Other film types aren't spared either, from the over-hyped superstar to the spineless directors bowing to the superstar. Or just how randomly plot lines for masala films are developed: "Give the hero a family, give him a sister. Give the sister dignity. And then take her dignity away," rattles off Suryakant to his shy brother and budding scriptwriter Ramakant (Tusshar Kapoor). Everyone is wowed by the storyline, applauding and calling Suryakant a genius.And you applaud Naseeruddin Shah for delivering such a brilliant performance as Suryakant, in a way no one else could have.
The film suffers in the second half, a curse of many Hindi film scripts. A scintillatingly enjoyable first half - Silk's rise to fame - isn't matched by what could have been just as gripping a second half - her decline. Instead, the track with Tusshar Kapoor slows down the pace and the shift in the relationship between Silk and Abraham seems abrupt, as if only to accommodate the sappy romantic song. However, Balan handles the arc of the character beautifully, both physically and emotionally. Neither she nor Luthria shy away from showing the protagonist as a filled out, voluptuous woman, with "thunder thighs" and "love handles" in full view. It's jarring, only because we're so used to size zero women flitting around on screen these days.
The music remains average barring the addictive 'Ooh La La.' The song that has most impact, however, is the Tamil song 'Nakka Mukka.' It essentially becomes the anthem to Silk's raunchy rise to stardom and is the one song that sticks after the film is over.
The Dirty Picture will be remembered for one thing that towers above all else (and the film is impressive on several accounts). Vidya Balan's performance as Silk is quite simply one of the bravest, most confident, and memorable we have witnessed in contemporary Hindi cinema. She dominates from start to finish and rises well above any inconsistencies in her characterization. Go watch The Dirty Picture to shamelessly experience the absurdities of the 1980s and witness one of the finest actresses of our time. Silk may have been the epitome of entertainment, but Balan proves that she epitomizes that and so much more.