The Dirty Picture vs a dirty picture: Quick thoughts
The following could arguably be the most crucial scene of Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture: a beautiful actress, the object of every man’s desire is sitting in a bathing tub, covered with nothing but some strategically placed foam. The tub itself is placed like a centerpiece of the tiny room. A flustered journalist is barely able to hold his camera still as he frantically takes pictures of Silk (Vidya Balan). Within seconds, what would have been a sensational expose of Silk’s humble home, turns into a feat in seduction as the journalist was all but forced to ignore the humble surroundings and focus on the star in the most thrilling, inviting pose. Silk’s plan to overshadow the shortcomings of her house by putting herself on display worked wonderfully. Something similar happens with the film, The Dirty Picture, which is somewhat patchy, plastic and awkward, but no one cares because Vidya Balan’s stunning performance overshadows the failings of this film.
In the first instance, it is a conventional story about the tragic life of a film actress who decided to make her way up in the industry by using her sexuality. However, despite a less than spectacular story, the film deftly positions itself in complex ways. Consider this: in the run up to the release of the film, producer Ekta Kapoor said in an interview to The Indian Express, “The Dirty Picture is about female sexuality and about a woman who created her own niche.” This sanitized, even progressive view of what the film wants to achieve was in contradiction, to say the least, on ground zero as a packed house of audiences clapped, whistled, hooted and even passed comments each time Balan licked her lips, bent provocatively to show her cleavage and moaned loudly as the couple next door tried to have sex. Even as it plays itself out as a biopic of the mysterious, exploited and tragic figure of Silk Smitha, it simultaneously uses the very tropes a number of Silk films used back in the late seventies and eighties, making it impossible to draw clear, moral distinctions between ‘celebrating’ female sexuality and ‘exploiting’ it.
The key player in complicating the politics of this film is the promotion. While talk of National Awards has gone viral (particularly with Ekta Kapoor saying she would be surprised if Balan didn’t get a National Award), the Web is still flooded with reports that emphasize what is constantly being referred to as the ‘boldness’ of the film. A sampler: “Simpleton to sexy siren: Vidya Balan goes ooh la la!” (Mid-Day), “The Dirty Picture: Breast Wishes” (blogpost), “Lots of Oomph, Sex in this Vidya Balan starrer (koimoi.com) and most importantly, Luthria’s quote that made headlines, “I have used sex to market The Dirty Picture” (Rediff). And this is not counting the sea of videos on YouTube that are on similar lines.
The most interesting bit of news in this regard was reported by The Economic Times, that said, “Readers of popular Hindi magazine Manohar Kahaniyan will get more than their dose of pulp fiction when they pick up its latest issue, the cover of which promises the raunchy story of a “sexy heroine”. The magazine with actress Vidya Balan on its cover is an enticement for an upcoming movie, The Dirty Picture, offering more than its staple fare.” It goes on to explicate that the production house has enlisted the services of a marketing agency called Spice Bhasha that was helping them promote the film in “non-metropolitan India…B-Towns”. Sidestepping the narratives of freedom and progression, the film is being promoted here in a way that is eerily reminiscent of how a Silk Smitha film would probably have been promoted a few decades ago.
It isn’t surprising therefore that the cover of the magazine has an image that is used as a magazine cover about Silk in the film as well. In other words, what serves as an image of Silk in the film, is being used as an image of Vidya Balan. To put it crudely, the unstated but ubiquitously understood distinctions between an award-winning actress of Balan’s caliber and Silk Smitha, who occupied the space between B-grade and soft-porn, are blurred. The very idea of representation, as something that is distanced from “what is” becomes shaky as these distinctions become unclear, underscoring the film’s confrontation with the moral hypocrisy of the film-making and viewing community, particularly in India.
Occupying multiple categories The Dirty Picture ensures that it manages to play to the gallery in diverse economic and cultural spaces. As action films return with a vengeance with films like Bodyguard, Ready and Singham breaking Box Office records in 2011, the only other film that successfully played a tongue-in-cheek game of now-an-action-film-now-a-parody, was Abhinav Kashyap’s Dabangg (2010).