Let me get this out of the way: it is not easy for me to be objective and intellectual about this movie. The "frankly lesbian perspective" that earned me a mention in a recent Outlook India article also has me fairly smitten with Vidya Balan, and whatever else The Dirty Picture gets right or wrong, it offers a whole heck of a lot for anyone in that stricken condition.
Reshma (Vidya Balan) flees from the stifling prospect of life as a village wife to the big city of Madras, carrying nothing but a tin of sugar and her dream of becoming a film star. She wins her first job through her willingness to dance a raunchy number that no other dancer will take on. Her steamy performance earns her the notice of Selva Ganesh (Rajesh Sharma), a producer who anglicizes her name to "Silk" and casts her in an item opposite her hero, an aging A-list star named Suryakant (Naseeruddin Shah). Silk wins Suryakant's support more by her willingness to sleep with him than anything she does on screen. But the public is captivated by Silk's sizzling sensuality, and soon she is ascendant as a huge star in her own right. Not everyone is equally impressed, though. A director with artistic aspirations, Abraham (Emraan Hashmi), is disgusted by Silk and everything she represents about the industry's taste for banal and cheap entertainment. Naila (Anju Mahendru), an older writer who makes her living tearing stars apart in the gossip rags, aims her pen squarely at Silk. Even Suryakant himself becomes threatened by Silk's volatility and success. And Suryakant's younger brother, Ramakant (Tusshar Kapoor), is torn between his own fascination with Silk, and his desire to break into screenwriting, which drives his dangerously sycophantic loyalty to his brother.
I watched this movie in continuous dialogue with myself. Feminist, analytical, serious Carla pondered the difficult question whether a movie could offer commentary on the exploitation of female sexuality without being exploitative itself. Lesbian horn-dog Carla was just having too much fun - and was too busy wiping drool off her chin - to give much thought to anything.
Feminist, analytical, serious Carla (FASC): The Dirty Picture has a very fine line to walk. Everyone knows that the cardinal rule of moviemaking is "show it, don't tell it." If The Dirty Picture wants us to understand that Silk is lascivious and uninhibited, that she takes her performances beyond the bounds of good taste, the movie has no choice but to show Silk doing just that. And so, there is a justification for letting the camera linger on Vidya Balan's cleavage, or caress her throat as she throws her head back in simulated climax -
Lesbian horn-dog Carla (LHDC): You're talking about that scene in the red negligée, with the rose, right? That was flat hot. I mean, the bow-chick-a-wow-wow music is beyond cheesy - but what can I say? Everything Vidya does, just plain works on me.
FASC (casting the side-eye at her alter ego): As I was saying, it is arguably the right way to make this movie - rather than just telling the viewer that Silk is screen-meltingly sensual, do everything you can to make the viewer feel just what audiences of Silk's movies would have felt.
LHDC: Well, in that case I think it was very effective. Although, I might have to watch it three or four more times, just to be completely sure. Here, let me cue up that negligée scene again ...
FASC: ... right. The trouble is that once the movie goes down that road, it is inevitably using the appeal of that sexuality to sell itself. And so the movie's criticism of that kind of exploitation runs the risk of ringing hollow at points. Leaving that internal contradiction aside, though, The Dirty Picture does a largely adequate job of pointing up the hypocrisy of an industry that worships male stars far beyond their worth, but chews up and spits out girls like Silk.
LHDC: If I got hold of a girl like Silk, I might well devour her, but I wouldn't chew her up or spit her out...
FASC: Ha, ha, funny. At any rate, the movie's efforts as highlighting the industry's double standards are well-rendered, if a bit literal and ham-fisted. (It should be noted that while the movie is nominally about the Madras movie industry, the implicit commentary applies just as well to Bombay.) For example, there is a Suryakant shooting in which he plays a college student while a woman half his age plays his mother - a woman, we are told, who had played his heroine the previous year. The audience gets to nod knowingly at this "it's funny because it's true" jab at the movie industry - but that's all there is. We all know this industry practice well, and The Dirty Picture's commentary on it doesn't really add any new insight. Suryakant is a bit of a buffoon, but he is treated as a God, sucked up to by nearly everyone from his brother on up to the apparently powerful producer Selva Ganesh - but it isn't clear why he wields such power. It might just be that money talks, and Suryakant wields power as long as he puts butts in seats - but even so, the script muddies that message, strongly suggesting that over-the-hill Suryakant can't fill theaters without Silk's skinshow.
The movie's reflection of the symbiotic relationship between stars and the reporters who get famous by dragging stars through the mud is rendered with a little more subtlety. Naila understands this relationship completely, and holds Silk in much higher regard than Silk, barreling through her own arc at runaway speed, understands. Indeed, Naila is the movie's closest thing to a feminist voice; she views Silk's courage with admiration, and watches her decline with sadness and a true understanding of its inevitability.
LHDC: You haven't mentioned that song yet ...
FASC: Everyone has already seen the song.
LHDC: But it's awesome! It's fun, it makes me want to run off and watch old Southern movies. And it makes me want to be Naseeruddin Shah. Oh wow ... Vidya is completely yummy in it ...
FASC (with an exasperated sigh): Yes, yes, it's a very good song. It captures Silk's rise to stardom in a fun montage of costumes and sets, interspersed with delightfully-styled fictional movie posters and scenes of her affair with Suryakant as it heats up. It's also a nice little microcosm of the dilmma that The Dirty Picture faces of illustrating the expoitation of Silk without simultaneously exploiting Vidya Balan.
And the best way for The Dirty Picture to redeem itself for being a little exploitative would be to give us a clear, compelling picture of Silk's inner life. But this is where The Dirty Picture falls a little short. At times it isn't clear what drives Silk and her peculiar mix of strength and desperation. This is through no fault of Vidya Balan, who does everything she can to add dimensionality to this weakest aspect of the script, and gives a flawless performance.
LHDC: Flawless is the right word for Vidya. How about that bathtub scene? And that smile, wow. And how about the smoldering looks she gives in that lovely "Ishq sufiana" song?
FASC (rolling eyes): Not now! As I was saying, Vidya clearly has a coherent mental model of her character, and does as well as an actor can do at conveying that model to the audience, given that the script paints her inconsistently and a little mysteriously. For example, for much of the movie, Silk is willfully oblivious to insults hurled at her by the press, until a comparison to the mythological Draupadi - a jab at her for apparently having affairs with both of the brothers Suryakant and Ramakant - causes an abrupt about-face, an explosion of rage in which she burns years worth of magazines and clippings. Has Silk been secretly sensitive to the invective all along, or has something about the Draupadi taunt in particular gotten to her in a way that the rest of the trash-talking did not? The script doesn't make this clear - but I think Vidya has a theory of Silk that she wants to make the audience understand.
LHDC: It is a theory that includes much chest-heaving and lip-licking, and clearly requires a great deal of careful study.
FASC (clearing throat loudly): And Vidya does a marvelous job with Silk's slide, in the second half of the film, into exhaustion and despair. The script is a little heavy-handed, but Vidya shows impressive range as she navigates Silk's almost bipolar swings from panicky impulsiveness (stopping traffic by dancing on the hood of a car to disrupt Naila's star-studded party) to lonely melancholy (drinking herself into a stupor alone in her enormous bungalow). Some of Vidya's finest scenes are Silk's least glamorous - such as late in the movie, as Silk sits on the floor of her living room with Abraham, bloated and without makeup, browsing through the photographic remnants of the best days of her career.
Another heavy-handed scene that is elevated by Vidya's performance is the staging of the song "Honeymoon ki raat,"(*) in which Silk faces down a young, naive rival (Arya Banerjee) for her position as the sexiest star of Madras movies. Silk trips the younger girl and strikes a triumphant pose. But rather than cheering for her, the onlookers are somewhere between horrified, amused, and embarrassed for her. The expression on Silk's face as awareness dawns is a marvelously complex mixture of fear, desperation, rage.
So, whatever The Dirty Picture's warts - and it does have some - Vidya Balan deserves all the praise she received for her rendering of Silk. The strength of her performance brings Silk to life with depth and (as much as she can) coherence. Vidya Balan, more than anything else, makes The Dirty Picture worth watching.
LHDC: Now that, I can agree with. Let's go watch it again.
(*) I have to note that my recent experience watching Broadway shows has made me more sensitive to the laziness of most Hindi song productions that don't bother to give different voices to lines picturized on different actors. Surely by the time "Honeymoon ki raat" was recorded, the dance-off picturization had already been decided. Was it really not possible to budget a second singer for Arya Banerjee's lines? The song would have been much stronger that way. You can apply a charitable interpretation - using the same voice highlights the fungibility of item girls, etc. - but that feels like a stretch. It's lazy, plain and simple, and in such an otherwise carefully-crafted production, there isn't really much excuse for it.