Film Review | The Dirty Picture

Reshma is a happy runaway. She escapes her small-town Tamil family and lives in Madras (now Chennai), nurturing celluloid dreams. She is dismissive of preying men and artlessly uses her aggressive sexuality to unnerve them. Uneducated and fiercely ambitious, Reshma has a chance when she grabs a raunchy dance number in a film where she has to whip herself.

Terrific acting: Naseeruddin Shah and Vidya Balan

This is 1980s’ Indian cinema. The crudest form of sheen (in attire, music and sexual attitude) gratifies a repressed nation’s libido. Silk (Vidya Balan) is this era’s most typical embodiment—the vamp-heroine who has a chance at posterity only because she is willing to show skin. Any kind of respectability is out of her reach and her humanity is out of her audience’s—or the film industry’s—reach.

As the film progresses, the worst of the 1980s reveals itself through Silk’s roles. Suryakant, the exploitative and gleefully narcissistic star (Naseeruddin Shah), tells his cronies: “This orphan angle is so ’60s. Give the hero a family, a sister, and then rape the sister."

Balan gives an uninhibited performance.

The individualistic and volatile woman’s journey manages to somewhat overshadow the age she is in. The riveting centre of The Dirty Picture is Vidya Balan’s remarkable rendering of Silk. She is whimsical, laughable and tender at the same time, often in the same scene. Balan’s commitment to the role, adopting an uninhibited physicality and changing minute details in her mannerisms and expressions to depict the passage of time, lifts the film’s narrative. Despite the writer’s blatant over-sexualization of the role, Balan’s acting, under Luthria’s direction, transcends it. It is one of the most terrific lead performances by a woman actor in Hindi cinema in a long time, and for this reason alone, The Dirty Picture is worth a watch.

Shah is her match in every scene they have together. The actor is visibly having a ball playing the embodiment of what he has always shunned in his own acting career—films written only for box-office success. The wrinkles and lines on his face and neck are no hindrance to his cocky, self-conscious aura. Superstardom and flattery drive him, although when his cronies tell him he is a “genius", he simply says, “Oh, it’s a curse". Shah lends the role its animated evil edge.

Tusshar plays a spineless screenwriter and Emraan Hashmi plays an idealistic director who turns sour. Both are important roles, but they get little screen space. Their performances are mediocre, and when they get screen space, they are overshadowed entirely by Balan.

The Dirty Picture could have been set anywhere. Madras and the Tamil film industry have no bearing on the story. Tamil cinema of the 1980s had two constant stereotypes—the sexy vamp and the good “family audience" leading lady. Few vamps became reigning stars, unlike Silk, whose skin show got her a sprawling bungalow and even an award. The ode to the 1980s is through glittery costumes and one song in Bappi Lahiri’s voice.

Arora’s script has a surfeit of dialogues. Some of them are delightful; you are likely to remember them forever, just like we do those Bachchan lines. In the first half, the laughter just flows. But as it progresses, wisecracks collapse on more wisecracks, and finally, just the complete lack of normal conversation becomes a weight and an impediment to stay with the characters. All the characters, especially Silk, speak in metaphors and puns. Luthria’s last film, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, also written by Arora, followed exactly the same template.

The Dirty Picture has no real thought about what its subject is. It has no comment on the 1980s or why women like Silk thrived in that particular era. The narrative’s casual nostalgia is breezy, but hardly insightful. If not for his powerful protagonist, and Balan’s interpretation of it, Luthria’s film would have simply been a caricature or, at best, an ordinary potboiler.

The Dirty Picture released in theatres on Friday.