With an arresting mixture of abandon and vulnerability, arrogance and tawdriness, she makes Silk believable, proving why she is the best actress in Bollywood today.

Sometimes — just sometimes — it's feels good to be proved wrong. Especially if you are also proved right.

When I first saw the promos and the posters of The Dirty Picture, I went, oh-oh, watch out for this one. With a name like that and a lead character loosely based on Silk Smitha, the unashamedly raunchy dancing queen, the director was clearly going all out with the sleaze, under the artistic respectability that a ‘woman-centric', ‘woman-empowering' film and character can so easily provide.

And I thought to myself, Vidya Balan? Sure, she's a darned good actress, one of the best we have, but dignified is a word you'd use to describe her; could she get low-down and dirty enough for this role?

I will eat my words — happily — about Vidya. She's not a darned good actress, she's a bloody good one; she's not one of the best we have, she's the best we have today. She's what makes The Dirty Picture. And she's come up with a performance that Hindi cinema has not seen the likes of in a long, long time — if ever.

I can't remember the last time I saw a Hindi film actress surrender to a role so brilliantly and so achingly. All the usual talk of ‘de-glam' roles and ‘realistic' acting sounds like so much pigeon poop compared to what Vidya has come up with. Most actresses today find it easier to skimp on the clothes rather than their makeup for a movie; And looking fat is — gasp! — unthinkable; vanity is the last frontier. Showing your cleavage is cool; letting your thunder thighs and belly fat and the tyres around your waist be blown up on the screen is a fate worse than 10 flops in a row.

Vidya does all this, and more, with an arresting mixture of abandon and vulnerability, of arrogance and tawdriness. She makes Silk believable and likeable, even admirable, because she brings such a degree of honesty and joy to the role. She brings it dignity because she holds her head high with self-belief. She is the one factor that keeps The Dirty Picture from descending into vulgarity.

And heaven knows there are enough times when the film teeters on the edge, slips over and crawls back. Before I list my complaints, let me say that The Dirty Picture is way ahead of most of the films that come our way, whether it is the cookie-cutter romances and dramas or the sensitive/realistic/ escapist/ low-budget lot. Primarily because it provides, in the words of its raunchy protagonist, “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.” If a film, however noble, well-meaning, committed, blah blah blah, does not entertain you in the broadest sense or make you wonder what's coming next, there's very little point, really.

Director Milan Luthria (Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Taxi No: 9211) kicks off with a bang and never lets up. Along with writer Rajat Arora, he sprays the film all through with one-liners — some smart, some smutty, some tacky. Like their heroine, Silk, they splash about happily in the freedom that their raunchy subject matter offers them and the double-entendres roll out relentlessly. Many of them are already a rage on the Internet and the crowds are loving it, of course; each line is greeted with catcalls, much raucous laughter and the odd cheeky comment. It does bring back the fun into watching the movies in a hall.

Add some great performances — especially from Naseeruddin Shah as the ageing, lecherous superstar Suryakant and Rajesh Sharma as producer Selva Ganesh. Plus, more cleavage on display than, perhaps, in all this year's A-grade movies put together. The camera clings to all of Vidya Balan's anatomy but her breasts get way more footage than Munni's or Sheila's did.

And this is where the trouble begins. Luthria has Silk in plunging necklines and itty-bitty skirts practically all the time, even during a quiet moment at home — ‘Have licence, will reveal,' seems to be the thinking. There's just so much you can take of Vidya's breasts and the sexually loaded dialogue and you're actually quite relieved when the movie gets into tragic mode.

There are other quibbles, like patchy pronunciation of Tamil names (“Silva Raj”) or glaringly illogical scenes (like a disoriented Silk wandering about semi-clad on the streets of Chennai without attracting a crowd) but we'll overlook them. The bigger problem is a film set in Chennai which has too many Bollywood overtones and undertones and simply doesn't get this aspect right.

But the biggest problem is the tightrope walk that a movie of this nature entails; where does the exploitation of a woman in the storyline end and where does on-screen exploitation by the director begin? By Indian standards, quite a few scenes in The Dirty Picture stop just short of soft porn; Silk fakes an orgasm in the first few minutes of the movie and sets the tone for the rest of it.

A movie about porn doesn't have to get as dirty as you might imagine — think Hollywood's Boogie Nights or that superb biopic The People vs Larry Flynt. Far too many Hindi movies abuse the licence that comes with this kind of territory; we've seen enough rape and molestation scenes in the name of the women's cause or art. Luthria has made the most of it, but it's a tough balancing act and perhaps we should let him get away with it if only because the movie has such a sense of fun about it.

And because Vidya brings a sparkle to her performance. She may have lowered her necklines and hiked up her hemlines as no other leading lady has, but she has also raised the bar for the Hindi film heroine. I'm guessing that not too many actresses are going to be attending the award nights this coming season. And that Vidya Balan will be scampering onstage at most. You deserve 'em all, Vidya.

shashibaliga@gmail.com

(This article was published on December 8, 2011)
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