Silk Smitha: South India's ill-starred film siren

Silk Smitha
Image caption An actress in more than 400 films, Silk Smitha died at the age of 35

Silk Smitha was the ultimate sex siren of south Indian cinema in the 1980s. The Dirty Picture, one of this year's most-talked-about Bollywood films and based on her life, opens on Friday. Sudha G Tilak recounts the phenomenon of Silk Smitha.

It all began in 1979 when Vijayalakshmi, a nondescript actress playing bit-part roles in south Indian films, became Silk Smitha.

She had played the role of a bar girl in a Tamil film, Vandichakkaram. The movie's sleazy drunks would call her Silukku, roughly translated as "oomph" in Tamil.

A minor filmmaker gave her the screen name of Smitha. Silukku then morphed into Silk, and the legend of Silk Smitha was born.

With her dusky looks and mesmerising eyes, Silk Smitha soon became the uncrowned queen of erotica, in a south Indian film industry where prurience was commonplace.

'Oozing sexuality'

Smitha was sexy and had an attainable allure.

"She looked as though she had no control over her body's ability to ooze sexuality and did not shy away from the response she evoked in men," says film historian and writer, Randor Guy, who discovered Smitha's potential when she was working in his film and television unit.

Image caption Silk Smitha has a brief tryst with serious cinema

It was a remarkable transformation for a girl born to poor parents in a village in Andhra Pradesh and who travelled to Chennai (Madras), in Tamil Nadu after her marriage broke up.

There she worked as a make-up assistant before she was picked up to play small parts in films in Kerala's Malayalam language.

After the name and image makeover, Smitha sizzled, portraying a wanton petulance that brought her fame - some say infamy - as a sex siren.

Over the next two decades, she never ran out of work, acting in more than 400 films in southern and Hindi languages, without winning any major roles.

Usually togged out in plumes, tassles and sequins and wearing heavy, garish makeup, she would shimmy and shake to songs.

The backdrop would a bawdy villain's den or her role would play out in the fantasies of shady men.

Sometimes she would play small parts as a seductress who lost her heart to a hero who was in love with a chaste heroine.

Brief tryst

By the late 1980s her fame had landed her roles in Bollywood films.

"In the 1980s she commanded a fee of 50,000 rupees ($1,000) per day for an appearance in a song sequence. It was rivalled by no other heroine," says Mr Guy.

Writer Janaki Venkatraman, who met Smitha at the height of her career, says she was a plain girl in real life.

"Smitha came across as a direct and practical person who was level-headed. She looked a lot less oomphy than her sizzling screen avatar," she says.

Smitha even had a brief tryst with "serious cinema", working with new wave Tamil filmmakers like Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra.

Critics who panned her for selling out as a sex object praised her nuanced performances in films like Alaigal Oyivadillai and Moonram Pirai.

But the rumour mills of movie-mad southern India were as interested in her off-screen dalliances as much as her on-screen persona.

In the mid-1990s, Smitha turned producer and took up with a much-married doctor, who moved in with her, along with his son.

Amid rumours of exploitation by producers and co-actors, it all ended abruptly in 1996 when Smitha was found dead in her bedroom, in a case of suspected suicide. She was just 35.

Now, more than three decades after she shot to fame, a Bollywood movie, The Dirty Picture, based on her life, is being released in theatres.

Vidya Balan, the actress who plays Smitha in the film, says of her character: "She is not shameless. She is a woman who is real - both girl and woman."

Amid much film promotion, one man claiming to be Smitha's brother has gone to court accusing the filmmakers of defaming his sister.

But Randor Guy believes that "Smitha had no brother and it's only a way to add to the drama before the film."

There is also scepticism of the film's title.

"Smitha had a lascivious presence," says Ms Venkataraman.

"But she was never a dirty picture."

Sudha G Tilak is a freelance journalist and writer

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