The Dirty Picture (Milan Luthria, 2011)
I'd been waiting so long to see The Dirty Picture, really excited by the promos, and the rave reviews it seemed to be getting from everybody, and the gloriousness of the setting in the Eighties film industry (my favourite filmi era). So my dvd finally arrived, and...I hated it.
Well, no. That's not entirely accurate. I sat through the whole film with growing disillusionment. Vidya Balan's performance, yes, as everyone reports, is excellent. But (and I am probably going to get lynched for this), I can't shake the nagging feeling that many of her rave reviews carry a little of the old “transform yourself bodily and win the Oscar” ring to them: isn't she BRAVE to show her flabby stomach on the screen like that? Look, by the end of the film she has cheek padding and no makeup!
Don't get me wrong, I think her performance was actually very good, it just irks me that I have read about her bravery in displaying her stomach so many times now, when I am pretty sure I never read the same thing when Abhishek gained weight for Guru (for example).
So anyway. The Dirty Picture is the tragic story of the rise and fall of a film heroine: Reshma, renamed “Silk” for the screen, and her relationships with the various men in her life. More than anything, it's about how she flagrantly uses her sexuality to get ahead in a time when women didn't openly flaunt themselves as sexual beings; how her confidence and success threaten those around her.
It's...interesting that one of the ideals The Dirty Picture champions is that movies ultimately need “only three things to succeed: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”.
Vidya Balan's character, Silk (reputed to be based on South Indian makeup girl-turned-actress Silk Smitha, but really seeming more like a composite of 80s heroines) utters this line provocatively to her arch-nemesis, art-film director Abraham (Emraan Hashmi), who believes the opposite: films must have substance and intelligence to have any worth. Abraham openly hates Silk, for nearly the entire film – he hates her because her her unabashed sexuality sells movie tickets to pictures that have nothing else to redeem them, and that disgusts him, and we know this because he tells us, not once, but over and over again.
We get it, Abraham. You think Silk is disgusting. You think women who embrace their sexuality are disgusting. You think people who watch films just to be entertained are disgusting.
That's a good starting point for a heated discussion, or a filmi exploration of the whole art versus commerce dichotomy. Commercial acclaim and critical acclaim CAN coincide, but they rarely do, and what's wrong with giving the people what they want? What's wrong with being entertained? I say this because it's like The Dirty Picture tries to have it both ways, bringing “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment”, recreating the kitschy, lurid atmospherics of the colourful, tacky 80s melodramas (I mean that in a good way) but then pushing a didactic message every so often, and resorting to the “tell, don't show” path of filmmaking to get the points across.
It's like it wanted to be 2 completely incompatible films – an Om Shanti Om-ish in-jokey celebration of the film industry in the 1980s, and a substantial exploration of the hypocrisy surrounding attitudes to sexuality.
Silk, in The Dirty Picture, is positioned as a rebellious force going against the status quo and somehow, for a short time at least, succeeding. A woman, proud of and confident in her sexuality, using it to get what she wants? A woman, arguing that there's nothing wrong with commercialism and giving an audience what they want?
We all know that this film is a tragedy, right? So it would make sense to emotionally connect with this incredible character, this outstanding firecracker of a woman from the outset, to understand her mindset so her fall from grace is more affecting?
Here's my biggest problem with The Dirty Picture:
The entire story is told through Abraham's eyes. You know – Abraham, the guy who HATES Silk? The one who sees her as disgusting? How are we supposed to really connect with her, ever, if that filter is always there, buzzing in our ear about how lewd and disgusting she is, how much he hates her, how awful she is as a woman and an actress and a human being?
I watched the film last night. The only scenes that have stuck in my head, from less than 24 hours ago, are pretty telling: Silk's first scene in a film, dancing sensually with a whip:
Silk's “orgasm” scene:
and the scene where Abraham, apparently confused about his eternal hatred for Silk, goes over to her house to insult her some more.
As good as Vidya Balan's performance was (and I really can't emphasise it enough – she owns the role, and nobody could have come CLOSE to breathing life into Silk like she did) I'm disappointed in myself that the scenes etched in my mind are Silk at her most sexual. But that's the thing: the film pays lip service to the idea of a woman owning her sexuality and using it as she wishes – nobody forces Silk to do anything she doesn't want to do, and nobody is forced to WATCH her – it feels...a little exploitative and vulgar, empty because of the lack of substance afforded to Silk's story. Ultimately, The Dirty Picture is exactly the kind of film it depicts Silk as being exploited in: an entertainer relying on the heroine's body as a draw; a film that, if I were to watch it again, I'd watch only for the songs.
Yes, Silk gets a speech about double standards and what not, but honestly? Watching this film the same weekend as Desi Boyz was quite a revelation. I CRIED at the end of Desi Boyz (which is by no means a great film) because I was emotionally invested in the characters, who had stories and goals and emotional truths. When Abraham goes and visits Silk and starts insulting her, I was just irritated that she would be stupid enough to let him in. There was no sympathy on my part for her, no empathy, no real feeling, because her story was REPORTED to me like a series of disconnected events “and then this happened” “and then this happened” with any incidental substance popped into dialogue as a speech or an irritating narration from Abraham.
It just left me wishing it had been better. Also: I never want to hear Ooh La La again.