“Zindagi mayoos hoti hai tabhi mehsoos hoti hai,” is the final footnote of The Dirty Picture where a spent force of nature after having lived crazy dreams and nightmares, dizzying flights and spiralling lows, finds peace. Not the kind we would have wished for her but the kind that comes after life has been lived to the last drop and has nothing more to give.
From the first moment when Vidya Balan’s Reshma provides unapologetic soundtrack to the nocturnal activities of her neighbours, we know she is made of what a talent spotter describes in the film as ‘bhookh.’ Hunger. The kind that does not wait to chew on life but swallows it in big mouthfuls and does not sip but gulps opportunities with water gushing down the throat in a rivulet. Watch Reshma as she consumes her first accidental break before the camera by sinuously dancing with a whip almost with a do or die passion. She knows she is born to do this. Whatever this is. Be sensuous. Unafraid. Be larger than life. Primal. And the dichotomy between this luscious woman on the screen and the woman who lives within her is never as clear as when a dark, unmade up Reshma watches her alter ego undulate on the screen with a gaggle of cheering male fans who don’t recognise her amid them.
As it turns out, noone really does. Reshma becomes Silk, the reviled sex symbol, the lowest common denominator in low cut knotted blouses, tacky Aamrapali dresses, revealing gowns who writhes on silken sheets before cameras and in the fantasies of her lusty fans but like she tells a suitor, “Touch toh bahuton ne kiya hai mujhe par chhua kisi ne nahin.” It was enough for her once to be desired but then she understands that to love a woman with all her humanity, her vulnerability, her flaws and her strengths takes more than just a libido. And when she does find that kind of love, it is impossible for her to believe in it because by then her heart has been broken too many times, her sense of self violated beyond repair.
More than her dirty pictures what gets Silk in the end is her ambition to be a hero, not just the vamp. Ambition that is acceptable and endorsed in a wasted male superstar (A brilliantly loathsome Naseeruddin Shah) but unforgivable in a woman who is unafraid to spite powerful journalists by stealing their thunder, who talks down to her spiteful baiters at an award ceremony (You criticise me in public but watch my films in private and call me disreputable?), seduces men for opportunity, for vindication, for what she mistakenly believes to be love. She must not be forgiven because she believes that she is a star even though she is just a bait to sell tickets. A ruse, a distraction, someone who as she herself says, does not know even the ‘ting’ of acting, someone who inspires lust or anger or disdain but never respect because only powerful men call the shots ultimately in an industry where women are treated by lesser men like interchangeable commodities and replaced once they cease to surprise or titillate.
This is possibly the bravest role any female actor has attempted in Hindi cinema because it strips Balan of the one thing cinema thrives on. Vanity. In an industry where perfectly good looking women estrange their noses from their faces with repeated surgeries, starve themselves to showcase their ribs, here is an actor who lets the camera roll off her extra layers of yes, flesh and revels in the Silk Smitha brand of oozing sexuality. Whether she is romancing a jaded lover, guiding a younger one to discover himself and matching wits with a committed hater or running out of her home in the middle of the night to scream, “Can someone please talk to me?” she is rivetting, frighteningly real and miles ahead of any other actor of her generation.
From a woman who once had to deal with noise every waking moment of her life to a woman who loved her success because it bought her a quiet home to someone who can no longer endure the absence of applause, Balan is miraculously the skin, the bone, the heart and soul, the flesh and blood of her character.She also accords a great deal of believability to her character because unlike many top actors, she can actually deliver a line and slice through an audience unprepared for this level of physical and emotional commitment to a role. One of her most memorable moments in the film is when she sits in calm harmony with a man who once hated her and then wakes up to the realisation that she must have really lost everything she was once proud of because even her enemies are no longer riled by her. Here is an actor who will be known not for her size, her 100 crore hits, her endorsements deals but a talent that towers above mediocrity and sets its own benchmarks and this one will be pretty tough to beat.
Just watching her trying to button a dress under a belly that has never been seen on a Hindi film heroine’s frame is a breathtaking moment. Her saucy repartee even in pain and desperate measures to keep her dignity and stardom break your heart and maybe the story could have ended on a more empowering note but then maybe for someone who had always lived by her own rules, there could not have been any other end. The men? Oh yes, the men. They serve their purpose and that is just about it.
Milan Luthria is now decidedly one of the those credible cinematic voices who use nostalgia from the 70s and the 80s without laughing at it but to recreate something we seldom see in Hindi cinema. Entertainment. Entertainment. Entertainment. Films that do not just capture the visual flavour of an era we so well remember (Remember his Once Upon A Time in Mumbai?) but its felicity with punch lines, memorable dialogues (Rajat Arora..applause and whistles) and the kind of energy that once made people throw coins on the screen. This is not a film you can watch detachedly. It will make you blush. Gasp. Laugh. Feel. Cry. And linger on in memory not as a great cinematic achievement, but as an unrepeatably unique experience. Brought to life by one of the most fearless actors of our times.
Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight (http://www.flipkart.com/b/books/perfect-eight-reema-moudgil-book-9380032870?affid=unboxedwri )