Ooh la la
10 January 2012
Review of the film ‘The Dirty Picture’.
In the film The Dirty Picture, director Milan Luthria recreates 1980s India by borrowing the look of films made during that period. As the blockbusterOnce Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010) suggested, such a play with nostalgia is the director’s forte. This time around, the immensely popular song ‘Ooh la la’ ensured that the promise of such nostalgic teleportation to the eighties would be there in The Dirty Picture. Loosely based on the life of the sensational South Indian starlet Vijayalakshmi, popularly known as Silk Smitha (1960-96), the film traces a village girl’s journey to the city, to stardom, to freedom and, eventually, to a tragic suicide. Among the film’s strengths are not only its rendering of nostalgia and the choice of a story to tell, but also its portrayal of desire.
Much has already been said about the film’s depiction of excess – the sexually charged gyrations, matkas and jhatkas, intonations and gestures – and of the central character’s sheer boldness, as played by Vidya Balan. What have frequently been overlooked, though, are The Dirty Picture’s understated references to cinema itself, as a medium that evokes desire and fantasy. Consider a scene in which Silk walks through the dark interiors of a cinema theatre while wearing her sunglasses, hoping to watch her own first performance in a song-and-dance number. If the darkness inside the cinema hall helps in suspending disbelief and embracing the ‘copy’ more than, or as if it were, the ‘real’, the sunglasses further suggest that Silk, by already considering herself a star, wants to retain the dream of stardom – she does not want to leave it, or perhaps she wants to have a dream within a dream. The film’s establishing shot shows a small girl, Reshma (yet to become Silk), being rebuked for climbing up a ladder, thus foreshadowing the dreamscape of heightened ambitions about to unfold.
Indeed, instances in which cinema becomes a producer of desire are everywhere in The Dirty Picture. The film posters with which Silk decorates her walls, her infatuation with the old iconic actor Suryakant (played by Naseeruddin Shah), and her courageous entry into the male-dominated cinema hall to watch a movie at the risk of being eve-teased by lustful men – each of these tell the poignant, multifaceted story of desire. Tied intricately with this association of desire to films is the social construction of the image of a vamp, collectively created by directors, cinematographers, choreographers, costume designers, expert reviewers, senior actors, Silk herself and the spectators. The film shows how, by selectively capturing particular movements or parts of a dancing body, the camera renders a human body a mere spectacle. As a fictionalised biopic of a real actor, then, The Dirty Picture invites the audience to reflect on the politics of desire operating within mainstream Indian cinema.
The film also questions whether a genre consisting of song-and-dance routines, featuring lifted saris and deep cleavages, can be dismissed as ‘low brow’ or crassly popular. It asks whether such purportedly ‘cheap’ movies deserve to be seen only by an audience from the urban slums and provincial towns when, in fact, Indian middle-class youths, while publicly castigating cinematic seductresses, privately fantasise about them. In this context, the phrase dirty picture of the title can be seen as not only referring to such movies relegated to the status of semi-porn, but also to the hypocrisy – the ‘dirty secret’, as Silk puts it in the flim – of the censurers.
Popcorn and bartan
Taking ambivalence over the perception and reception of desire one step further, The Dirty Picture complicates the way the audience identifies with objects and subjects of its desire on-screen. Who is the object of ‘our’ desire in this film – is it the real Silk Smitha, or the character Silk Smitha? Or, perhaps, is it Vidya Balan playing Silk Smitha, or Vidya Balan herself? And who are we as the spectators to identify with – the men in Silk’s life or Silk herself, in her desire for those men?
This last point is particularly important given that the film also plays with the depiction of the men in Silk’s life, allowing multiple interpretations of who, exactly, a particular man represents. And this representation is complicated further by Silk’s active soliciting of male desire and her ability to respond to it by simply returning the gaze. For instance, early on, Reshma, while undressing for a bath, first feels shy in front of a poster of Suryakant, and then talks to the poster, allowing the picture to gaze at a part of her. For this young girl, then, the subject of desire is not only a real man but also the mere idea, the representation, of a man.
Later, when director Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) tells Silk, while expressing his love for her, that he is infamous for being a womaniser, the exact subject is again unclear: not only is Abraham referring to the character’s image in the film, but also to Hashmi’s persona as a ‘serial kisser’. Such a kaleidoscope of references encourages a constant sliding of positions for a subject of desire in The Dirty Picture.
The stage for desire created here is not only through exchanges of lustful gazes and sensual depictions of bodies; it also comes about through innovative dialogue. While, on one hand, the over-the-top quality of the dialogue has been appreciated for its humour, on the other it has been criticised for interfering with the sombre mood of some scenes. Rigorous interlocutors have contended that use of such dialogue contributes, among other things, in making The Dirty Picture a masala film, which compromises the sincerity of its portrayal of the rise and fall of a dancing star. Beyond such debates, what needs to be noted is that lines such as ‘Jab devi ke darshan ho gayee toh mandir kiss kaam ka’ (Why would you go to a temple when the goddess is right here?) or ‘Popcorn jitna bhi ud le girna use bartan par hi hain’ (No matter how high it flies, a popcorn falls back into the pot), cannot be comprehended as merely carriers of sexual innuendo, for they provide a way for desire to be openly referenced in public, albeit from a male point of view. Moreover, with colloquial words such as ‘chutki‘ (a pinch), ‘boombat‘ (a bombshell) and ‘tuning‘ (sexual activity) acquiring center-stage, the dialogues and lyrics of the songs in the film could be seen as an attempt to map the vocabulary of desire as prevalent in the public culture of the 1980s.
The Dirty Picture clearly celebrates Silk Smitha’s unabashed sexuality, her ability to communicate through her body, and the wave of liberation she helped propel. Over the years since the rise and fall of Silk, dance movements reserved earlier for ‘item’ girls have gained wider acceptance, eventually becoming a part of the performance of actresses in lead roles. The Dirty Picture is also a film that continues the current trend of expressing nostalgia for past films by paying homage (though not without some irony) to the 1980s. At the same time, it is also a commentary on stardom, on the negotiations a woman has to make in a male-dominated industry. But more than anything, it is about the complexities of desire, a picture of ‘dirt’ that has nothing dirty about it.
~ Rahul Mukherjee is a student of Film and Media at University of California, Santa Barbara.