Silk Smitha says ‘let’s go to the temple’, and she manages to even make that sound sexy." Eminent Tamil film historian S. Theodore Baskaran, author of the out-of-print last word on Tamil cinema The Eye of the Serpent (East West Books, Chennai), now a recluse in his Bangalore home, recalls how Tamil director Baalu Mahendra once described the appeal of the woman known to millions as “thunder thighs".

“Films that had lain in cans for years were sold by the simple addition of a Silk Smitha song," says Randor Guy, Tamil crime writer, screen writer, author of A History of Tamil Cinema (1991, published by the government of Tamil Nadu) and legal historian for The Hindu, of the woman with whom he shared a warm work friendship in the years from her unexpected fame until her suicide in 1996.

Oozing oomph: Silk Smitha often designed her own costumes and Malayalam directors making family-oriented films frequently asked her to tone down their raciness. Gnanaprakasam E

The fictionalized biopic by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, The Dirty Picture, based nebulously on Silk Smitha’s life, is set to release on her birth anniversary on 2 December. What pulled Rajat Arora, its scriptwriter, to the story—far removed from his north Indian milieu in which most of Bollywood functions today? “It is a biopic in as much as when you write about doctors, you would want to include a famous surgery that actually happened as a hub around which fictionalized events turn," says Arora, who took his cues from producer Ekta Kapoor, who, he says, initially looked at it as a smaller film on the soft-pornography phenomenon of the 1980s.

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Arora confesses he has not really watched Silk Smitha’s films. “If you look at Marilyn Monroe, everyone remembers that iconic shot of her dress flying above a New York vent. And yet she committed suicide. What happened between those two periods? That is where the story lies." The question is, will the film be able to tear away from the caricature of her life or will it further propagate its myth?

A poster of Reshma ki Jawani, still a cult Internet download, was a remake of the Malayalam hit Layanam (1989). Silk Smitha’s co-star in the film, Nandu, also later committed suicide. Courtesy W+K Exp Gallery

Mahendra’s first film, made in Kannada—Kokila (1976)—won him a National Award and was the precursor to a stellar career that pursued the social cause through films such as Azhiyatha Kolangal (1979), Veedu (1988) and Sandhyaragam (1991). A brilliant cinematographer-turned-feminist director, he broke the stereotype by establishing women as his protagonists in a still male-dominated industry. He was one of the few directors who briefly wrested back control from single-actor-led films. He modelled himself on Satyajit Ray and Vittorio De Sica.

He has been misquoted many times, he says. Mahendra flourished in the 1980s, when politics was synonymous with cinema in Tamil Nadu—many actors and directors of that era are now prominent political players. “Why just Silk Smitha? Disco Shanthi, Jayamalathi, Bindu, Sasikala— there were many women who broke the mould, who were bold and daring, who brought sensuality to the screen," Mahendra points out. Yet it was only in the 1980s that these women’s potential was maximised by discerning directors who saw them as the repositories of society’s dark side. “It was a short period of such directors and it ended all too quickly," says Baskaran of the time when feminist thought, open sensuality and the eroticism of women were tools in an able director’s hands, freeing films from a hero who called all shots.

The underlying sorrow of the 1980s ran deeper than a single actor who killed herself, or a talented director who withdrew. Just as women in the Tamil film industry were discovering the freedom to express themselves sensually, nine female actors committed suicide (see The suicide sisterhood). They weren’t just vamps: Shoba, who won the National Award for Pasi in 1979 and was widely rumoured to be a much-married Mahendra’s lover, killed herself the following year after a lovers’ spat. She was 17. Mahendra subsequently wrote a series of sentimental musings in the Tamil magazine Kumudam titled Shobavum Naanum (Shoba and me) and more recently claimed Shoba as his wife on Anu Hassan’s Tamil TV show Koffee with Anu.

Their story inspired the Malayalam National Award-winning film Lekhayude Maranam: OruFlashback (1983), and the tragedy inspired Mahendra’s own National Award-winning film Moonrampirai (1982) starring Silk Smitha (the film was remade in Hindi as Sadma, 1983). That parenthesis, which ended with Silk Smitha herself committing suicide in 1996, was the context of such an industry.

Cho Ramaswamy, former actor, editor of the Tamil news magazine Tughlak and political and social commentator, does not believe the Tamil industry in the 1980s was exploitative of women. “Did so many women commit suicide? It was mostly caused by foolish personal entanglements. The 1980s were a time when I was leaving the industry, but I personally know many women in it, and women felt safe. Of course there was an ‘upper class’ and a ‘lower class’and even a ‘scheduled tribe’, if you will, of female actors—but wasn’t that the same for men? And for any industry? In any case, the films always depended on heroes, not heroines, for hits."

Yet, even towards the end of her career, Silk Smitha just needed to appear in a blouse and a lungi in Ezha mala poonchola with Mohanlal in Spadikam (1995), and teenage boys became men. Producers circulated songbooks, small towns staged live cabarets which routinely involved stripteases, and the cult following catapulted ordinary movies to blockbuster status. What became of them, the stars of this phenomenon, was someone else’s problem.

Silk Smitha, sometimes called Silk Sumitha, was born Vijayalakshmi in the town of Eluru in Andhra Pradesh in 1960. Guy met Silk Smitha on film sets in the course of his writings, and developed a warm rapport with the otherwise reserved actor because they shared a mother tongue, Telugu. “‘Yemmendi, yemmendi’, she would say when she saw me," he recalls (yemmendi is a Telugu term of respect commonly used to hail a senior). “She was a voluptuous, extremely good-looking woman. This led her to being ‘exploited’ by men (for) most of her youth. To solve this, her family married her off at a very young age. But this just made it worse. Ill-treated in her marriage, Vijayalakshmi ran away to Chennai and lived with an aunt while she tried to make a new start."

In Chennai, she began as a touch-up artiste for a B-grade actor, but her beauty quickly got her the kind of character roles that would allow her acting talent (of which she had plenty) to shine. She made her debut with a character role in the Malayalam film Inaye Thedi (1979). But her extreme sexiness intervened, demanding cabaret dances and vamp roles that became monetarily lucrative for the film industry.

In the late 1980s, Guy wrote a TV crime series, Senior Junior, which aired a single episode starring Silk Smitha in a role where she is mysteriously found dead in a bathtub. Guy knew her well from the height of her fame to this time of descent, and describes her as a warm, fantastic person, a talented actor, shrewdly aware of the lengths her sex appeal could take her, very reserved, and so sexy that it overwhelmed everything else about her.

Guy claims to have met Silk Smitha’s husband a few times. “She married again after she came to Chennai. He was a nice man. She kept him quiet and he was content to let her take the limelight." (Lounge could not independently verify that Silk Smitha was married.)

Silk Smitha, Guy says, was no fool. She carefully designed her costumes. She spun her image. She worked with greats. She did the critically acclaimed role of a demure sister in Bharatiraaja’s Alaigal Oyvathillai, performing brilliantly. “But I remember people told her: ‘Why are you wasting time with this? Take a sexy role and make some money.’" Once the name “Silk" stuck after her character in Vinu Chakravarty’s Vandi Chakram became a huge hit, even if she tried she could not take on other roles," Guy recalls.

As The Dirty Picture gets set for launch, it is important to note that it was in the films of men like Mahendra and National Award-winning film director K. Balachander, in Bharatiraaja’s Alaigal Oyvathillai and in the musical genius of Ilayaraja, that Silk Smitha came to life. Not semi-pornographic gyrations in a seedy dance-bar setting in front of lascivious men—the image the world remembers her by. “You have to understand that the myth of the vamp was an image, spun for the benefit of making a film, and an industry, based on her, work," points out Rangan. The public perception of Silk Smitha was a careful social construct.

Shobhaa De, then editor of glamour magazine Stardust, recalls an era of “thunder thighs and padded bras (no size zero, no botox, no surgically enhanced breasts— poor things!)". Women seeking stardom were left coping with what came their way. “They were paid a pittance and treated like props—anybody could hire or use them. They ‘belonged’ to the producer/director and had zero social prestige. Even a prostitute’s life was superior—at least a sex worker was not made to believe she was a star in the making. Plus, sex workers are spared the narcotic of the big screen—once hooked, you’re dead," says De.

Recreating an era: Vidya Balan plays Silk Smitha in the 2011 Balaji Telefilms biopic, also featuring Naseeruddin Shah.

But there was a difference, Pinto says: “Helen’s dances were an extension of who she was. There was no music video to emulate, no MTV, so directors would tell her ‘chalo abhi kuch kar’. Helen’s dances were largely an expression of her personality. She had freedom."

Women like Silk Smitha were entirely in the hands of the dance director, who perhaps had only Helen to copy moves from. So the dance that ensued was more choreographed gymnastics. “Watch Silk Smitha’s sequences and you will find a sense of lingering sorrow. It’s almost as if there were two Silk Smithas there: One watching her own self dance, detached and dispassionate about being put through these calisthenics," says Pinto.

Not that the strain of sorrow has lifted even today. The Kannada film industry, reacting to allegations of domestic abuse against married actor Darshan, ganged up to ban his lover Nikita Thukral, quickly backtracking to reveal a seamy underbelly. Baskaran says: “What is happening today in the Kannada film industry is exactly what happened in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s. Affairs, broken relationships, abuse, exploitation—those who were rising stars had their careers curtailed when they married, those who didn’t suffered worse fates. It is what women of the time dealt with."

In The Eye of the Serpent, Baskaran spans the eras of films before they became sheer entertainment—key being as vehicles of Hindu mythology, social welfare and political propaganda. During each, upholding mythology-inherited virtues like chastity was an ideal. As the era of director-led films like Avalum Penthane (1975) by D. Durai, and Aval Appaddithan (1978) by D. Rudhraiya dawned, films began to move towards sheer sensuality. But Tamil society was stuck in a quandary: women, the repositories of social virtue, could not take a 180-degree turn overnight.

Silk Smitha on the cover of Cinema Express magazine in March 1984.

Silk Smitha was not an isolated phenomenon, and The Dirty Picture, therefore cannot remain a biopic.

Milan Luthria, the director of The Dirty Picture, insists the process of discovering Silk Smitha has led to him developing “a tremendous regard" for women who paved the way. “To recreate the era, we went back not just to the colour and vibrancy of the industry, but to aspects like how these actors managed money, how they got cheated; typically, most of them had a string of broken relationships, led lonely lives and met with tragic ends," he says. Women like Silk Smitha were often ignored by film magazines, except for gossip column mentions. Arora and Luthria culled their information from anecdotes, met-at-a-party stories, quick tea-break chats, and fictionalized them: “It’s not like we sat and watched Tamil films once we decided to make this film. If you are a movie buff, you have been exposed to the impact of her. Many incidents we heard from people over the years are part of the movie," Arora says, refusing to pin The Dirty Picture to a genre, an actor or a region. “The dancing girls were not only in the Tamil film industry, but all over: Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil," Arora says.

Instead of moving south, Arora took his inspiration from “the films of directors like Manmohan Desai, Vijay Anand, Raj Kapoor, Feroz Khan and G.P. Sippy". Arora says, “Ekta and I clicked on even our Hollywood points of reference—the Oscar-nominated Boogie Nights (1997) and The People vs Larry Flynt (1996) put the global soft-porn industry in context for us." The film by now had become a fictionalized, women-oriented, generalized perspective on the 1980s film industry.

Factually unmoored, the myth of Silk Smitha floats on.

So powerful was Silk Smitha’s sexuality that even today it overrides the data. Actor Vidya Balan was perturbed at first by the raw, brazen, oozing sexuality of the role, Luthria says, and needed much coaxing. “They were much bolder than we are today. These women had fewer inhibitions. I don’t think the same oomph is there today. If anything, we are more restricted," Arora says.

Heroines had begun to take on the role of vamps. “Heroines began to look directly at the screen, bite their lower lips and do their pelvic thrusts and hold orgasmic expressions—it was a lustier life led," Rangan says. Luthria says today’s leading female actors vie for item numbers and can still expect to settle down with an industrialist. But De says reality lurks beneath the surface. “Today’s item numbers have an identity of their own. They are a ticket to making big bucks at international shows. The mindset of the movie industry can never change. It remains Neanderthal. Women are seen and treated like meat. Savage, but true."

The Dirty Picture in that sense is not an apology for the era, Arora stresses. “Everyone who aspires to be an actress starts in the same way. It’s about discovering where your strength lies and finding your own path to success." It is entertainment, not a social message. It asks why. “Women are held up to judgement more easily in roles men have gotten away with for ages. That’s why we’ve made this movie. If we achieve asking the question why—forget answering it—we (will) have achieved what we set out to do," he says.

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THE SUICIDE SISTERHOOD

From the mid-1970s, female actors in the Tamil industry, exhausted by exploitation and a lack of options, began to turn up dead ‘under mysterious circumstances’. All the deaths were eventually attributed to suicide

1974: Vijayashree

According to a report in ‘The Hindu’ (‘It’s a heavy price to pay’; 3 May 2002), the first of the suicides began with Vijayashree in 1974. A well-established actor and co-star of stalwarts such as Gemini Ganesh and Sivaji Ganesan, she killed herself when an affair reportedly went awry. Her mother, suspecting foul play, requested an investigation, but the matter was never resolved.

1979: Lakshmisree

Lakshmisree had just played sister to Rajinikanth in the film ‘Dharmayudham’ (1979) when she hanged herself while her live-in lover was reportedly asleep in the adjoining room. The case was investigated for foul play, but was ruled to be one of suicide.

1979: Kalpana

Affectionately nicknamed “Mingu Taare" (or shining star), Kalpana was a Tulu-born actor whose name was originally Sharat Lata. She was known for her sartorial elegance, introducing trends such as ‘megya’-sleeves and frilled blouses, large earrings, necklaces and cocktail rings—with taste said to be still unrivalled in the Kannada film industry. She acted in numerous Tamil films. In true diva fashion, she killed herself en route to Kolhapur on NH 4 by swallowing a diamond from a ring given to her by a suitor who reneged on his commitment to marry her, in what is widely believed to be a copy of her role in the Kannada film ‘Gejje Pooje’ (1969).

Date unknown: Kumari Padmini

Lost lives: (clockwise from left) Divya Bharti; Lakshmisree; Silk Smitha; Phataphat Jayalakshmi and Shoba.

1980: Urvashi Shoba

Born Mahalakshmi, multi-award-winning actor Shoba was the daughter of K.P. Menon and Malayalam actor Prema. She made her debut as a child actor in the Kannada film ‘Udyogastha’ and at 17, won the National Award for the Tamil film ‘Pasi’ in 1979—the youngest actor to do so. Her co-star Venu Nagavalli told news magazines how he had observed her relationship with the much married Baalu Mahendra, her cinematographer and then director, evolve on the sets of ‘Ullakadal’, directed by K.G. George. Shoba committed suicide on 16 September 1980 when Mahendra reportedly refused to leave his family for her. On the Tamil TV show ‘Koffee with Anu’, Mahendra claimed to host Anu Hassan that Shoba was his wife, describing how her suicide had inspired one of his greatest hits, ‘Moonrampirai’.

1980: Phataphat Jayalakshmi

Telugu-born Jayalakshmi was a popular actor in the films of Andhra director Dasari Narayan Rao when she came to Tamil films, where she didn’t flinch from bold and brazen roles. She earned the tag “phataphat" following a popular dialogue from the film ‘Maro Charithra’ (1978) by K. Balachander. She routinely co-starred with top actors such as Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Krishna and Chiranjeevi. She was reportedly either involved with or married to a nephew of politician-actor M.G. Ramachandran when she committed suicide in 1980 (reports differ).

1981: Savitri Ganesh

The much adored and beautiful wife of Gemini Ganesh, Savitri was known to be chatty and a versatile actor and director. Born in Andhra Pradesh, she acted in 318 films, and co-starred with actors such as M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. She married Gemini Ganesh while acting with him in ‘Manampol Mangalyam’ (1953). Though her son found her foaming at the mouth due to a diabetes-induced coma, it was widely rumoured to have been suicide due to financial circumstances, a drinking problem and a messy marital state of affairs (she was Ganesh’s third wife).

1993: Divya Bharti

While it is widely known that Telugu actor Divya Bharti came into limelight in the Andhra Pradesh film industry with ‘Bobbili Raja’ in 1990, her earlier years of struggle in the Tamil industry are less documented. She made her debut armed with “a face like Sridevi" in the Tamil film ‘Nila Pennae’ (1990) and secretly married Bollywood director Sajid Nadiadwala shortly after. At the time of her death in 1993, she was 19. She had acted in 21 films and had 14 works in progress.

1996: Silk Smitha

Born Vijayalakshmi in 1960 in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh, the actor oozed sensuality and quickly learnt to flaunt it. She made her debut in character roles in films such as the Malayalam film ‘Inaye Thedi’ (1979) and worked with greats such as Baalu Mahendra and Bharatiraaja. Her own production venture ‘Penn Simham’ (1987) marked a series of flops she never recovered from. She committed suicide in 1996, rumoured to be broken-hearted at her failures.

2001: Viji

When Viji, with a career of more than a decade in Tamil films, hanged herself in Mahalingapuram, Chennai, on 27 November 2001, she left an audio tape in which TV director A.R. Ramesh professed his love for her, a letter addressed to the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu M. Karunanidhi—who had funded a surgery that had left her crippled a few years earlier—requesting the state to avoid disfiguring her body further with a post-mortem, notes for her father on her wealth, and her lawyer. She was 34 and had featured in 40 Tamil films.

Gayatri Jayaraman

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