THE DIRTY PICTURE Review
The story of a country girl breaking the chains that bind her to her rural upbringing and looking for success on the big screen is not a new one. It's been told in Hollywood many times, however, this story played out for real in the south Indian film industries in the 1980's with the real life Silk Smitha. Silk's tragic tale is illustrated capably by director Milan Luthria, who struggles with an uneven script from Rajat Arora. The rise of this big screen siren is nearly as meteoric as her sudden fall from grace. The dichotomy could probably have been handled better, but the film chooses to address it in the most common of ways.
The first half of the film shows Silk's running away from home and beginning her career as the sexiest and raunchiest of item girls. The pre-intermission arc provides lots of laughs and generates lots of goodwill toward the commoner Silk as she crawls through the muck to land on top of the heap. Helping, and sometimes hurting, her ascent is Naseeruddin Shah as Surya, an aging south Indian film hero from the one place left on Earth where the idea of an anti-hero hasn't yet caught on. Yet, for all of his forthrightness on screen, he's kind of a creep in real life. However, his relationship, on and off screen, with Silk provides for some of the finest on-screen moments for the both of them. Shah is a brilliant actor, and even though he's here to lampoon a certain style of acting and filmmaking in general, he never tips his hand.
Vidya Balan's transformation from the country girl Reshma to Silk the sex bomb is definitely worthy of note. In the first half of the film, she proves that she's willing to do anything to become a star, much to the chagrin of a director with international ambitions played by Emraan Hashmi. As Silk rises, Hashmi's Abraham plots her downfall, and in the second half of the film, we see his plans begin to gel. The film takes a very dark turn as Silk turns to the drink and allows her ego to get the best of her. While her out of control pride leads to one of the best songs in the film in the form of a dance off with the new flavor of the week at a party, it's all downhill from there.
I could spend more time talking about Shah, Hashmi, and Tusshar Kapoor, the third man in Silk's life, but that's all just a smoke screen for this film's real raison d'etre. Vidya Balan is astounding in this film, and Milan Luthria, even though he can't quite seem to get a handle of his own film's dialogue at times, knows exactly what he's doing when Balan's on screen. She oozes sex in a way that Indian actresses don't. Indian films are all about the tease and implication, but Vidya Balan, and the real life Silk Smitha, were all about seduction and raw, raunchy sexuality in a way that audiences of both sexes lapped up.
Silk Smitha didn't look like a typical Indian film star, either, she had some meat on her bones, and Vidya Balan gained about 25 lbs for the role, all of which are on display throughout the course of the film. One thing that I didn't notice at the time, but became more obvious as the film wore on was that the weight was always there, but for the first half of the film, Vidya was shot in such a way that it was extremely sensual and she looked bountiful and gorgeous. However, as she began to crash, her posture took a nose dive, and what was sensual and curvy became lumpy. I've never seen any actress in an Indian film willfully look the way that Balan looks in The Dirty Picture, and it was all 100% intentional. She uses her attitude, her dress, her affect, and even her posture to convey this complicated and conflicted character that required a lot more than most actresses would be willing to deliver.
Where the film stumbles is when it veers away from Vidya. When the camera isn't on her, Luthria doesn't seem to quite know what to do. Characters deliver long soliloquies to no one in particular, the scenarios move from homage to farce, and the actors seem to lose focus. On several occasions, actors deliver lines of philosophical mumbo jumbo to the camera for no reason at all. In fact, Vidya's only questionable moment in the film comes in the scene immediately before intermission when she accepts an award and goes on a rant to the audience that is not necessarily out of character, but very out of step with her performance as a whole.
The Dirty Picture succeeds because of Vidya Balan in the finest acting performance of the year out of India. She is able to overcome the clumsy writing to make her character sympathetic and the film incredibly engaging. The melodrama drags down the second half, but Balan's charisma keeps the audience from drifting in a way that requires a true and powerful talent. This film offers big laughs, fantastic spectacle, big emotions, and a powerhouse performance from a brave and exciting actress. The Dirty Picture is a winner, and with the help of a good editor, could probably even make the art house rounds if it wanted to. However, I'll take Bollywood with all of its faults and excesses any day, and this is quality Bollywood.