The real Silk Smitha was no ‘dirty picture’. She was a picture of desire and fulfilment, even if her sexuality prodded men to think dirty.
Firstly, it’s Siluku-oomph in Tamil. The north of the Vindhyas got it wrong by calling her Silk and it stuck. When she hit celluloid in her first major role in 1979 in Vandi Chakaram (The Wheel’s Spoke) as a voluptuous toddy shop owner, the tippling geezers drooled and pleaded, “Siluku, pour me another”. E Vijayalakshmi had a change in name and fortune that none but she knew of. However, she remains in the collective techno-colour fantasies of Indian cinema followers as Silk Smitha, the bombshell with eyes that said, ‘I love you’, arms that said, ‘I want you’ and lips that said, ‘Why don’t you?’
The oomph’s memory will hit the screens again in Ekta Kapoor’s The Dirty Picture on December 2, Silk’s birth anniversary when she would have turned 51, if she had been alive. Silk’s meteoric rise as the sex siren of the 1980s and 1990s and her end by suicide have passed on to the collective archives of our memories in a Marilyn Monro-esque fashion. The death of a beautiful woman, all flesh and desire, adds its own brand of mystery and mystique to her tragic end. And it seems only fitting to revisit her life and times and her brand of sexuality that fuelled fantasies for over two decades in south Indian and Hindi films.
Silk’s timing was perfect. At a time when Telugu and Tamil films were under the onslaught of what were then called ‘cabaret dancers’ in filmi parlance in the south and who were flabby, and spilling from all sides and played molls with unabashed vampishness, Silk’s arrival signalled a new desire. She was sexy, she suggested erotic impulses and coquetry. When she pouted and pirouetted in plumes and tassels and played the village belle in micro clothes with disarming innocence she seemed so attainable. She brought in real flesh and showcased female desire with feminine vile and guile that made for an irresistible combination. 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.
In fact Silk’s enduring legacy is she made the Indian woman desirable on screen and showed her to be a wanton creature of beauty, desire and ambition. Today’s top heroines of Indian cinema, both in the south and in Bollywood exemplify Silk’s mechanisms for their daring display of their svelte bodies and boldness in flaunting them. Silk made it possible for the item number to be more than just commoditisation of the female. She made the Indian heroine shed her prudishness and showed the way to be petulant and angry and seductive. She glorified her body and displayed it without a sense of shame as its attractiveness and beauty was beyond her control.
It was not surprising that her brand of dusky attractiveness made the new-wave film-makers of Tamil cinema take notice of her and prod her to widen her range and insisted she perform as an artist too. Her filmography claims over 400 films in all southern languages and in Hindi, but some of her character roles beg recall. For Balu Mahendra, the Sri Lankan Tamil film-maker and Bharathiraja she embodied the whole woman. Hence she was the first sex siren who got to play deeper characters than just the superficial moll with a broken heart who dies as she can’t attain the hero and her ‘purity’ was disputed. She had played the lonely and unloved wife in Sadma; the tragic wife of a brute in Alaigal Oivadilai; a cop in Silk Silk Silk and a rustic housewife in a comic role in Avasara Police 100 and had acted as the heroine with leading men like Rajnikanth and Prabhu in (Kozhi Koovudu, Soorakottai Singakutti) in her heydays.
Silk exemplified the sexy siren with a personality. For a girl born Vijayalakshmi in a tiny village in Elur, Andhra Pradesh, life had landed her lemons pretty early. She came from an impoverished family, was married off as a teen, had left home for Madras to live with an aunt after a broken marriage, taken an odd job as a make-up assistant in the Tamil film industry and had gone up the ladder from playing small parts in Malayalam films to evoke a million wet dreams as Siluku in Vandi Chakaram. She had been a fast learner. Her price had soared to unheard sums in the late 1980s and 1990s.There was nothing cheap when it came to her, be it her costumes, her make-up or the attention on a film set. She set trends all of her own making. While earlier vamps had made grossness their calling cards, Silk made oomph her own brand. She toyed with outlandish costumes, gowns with slits, village belle costumes and her make-up certainly rivaled any top heroine’s. At her peak, she got the applause and audience appreciation by appearing in five minutes of a song in a film, outdoing the heroine’s.
A leading Tamil actor said, “For the amount of abuse her body had suffered, it was her temple and she had maintained it so for a long time. She was an eager learner and took additional interest when she was asked to play roles other than that of a vamp.”
A few months before she died in 1996 I was sent off to meet her for an interview for a leading news magazine. At her residence, a neat bungalow in one of south Chennai’s residential colonies, Smitha welcomed me with a guarded smile, accompanied by the yapping of her poodle. She had worn a short blue silk gown and silver slippers. She wore a little lipstick and her scrubbed face shone from a recent shower, perhaps. We’d sunk into the sofas in her plain living room and she took about half an hour before warming up. She was frank, able to recall and speak without any hesitation or coyness. There was a quiet presence of her then boyfriend. He stood on the first-floor corridor overlooking the sunken living area with a still quietness. He was alternately called her ‘bearded boyfriend’ or husband by the Tamil tabloids. Smitha made no apologies and said he was her dear friend when I asked her to define her status with the man.
She had been going through a slump. Younger starlets and item girls had entered the scene, her film production, which was a collaborative effort with aforementioned boyfriend had been a dud and she was doing a few item songs in Telugu and Malayalam and Tamil and Hindi films. She was able to recall funny moments with Rajnikanth — both were no “twinkle toes”; and Kamal Haasan’s choreography in the Moondram Pirai (Sadma) had been more pain and less pleasure for her. “I was freezing on the Kodai hilltop in skimpy tribal feathers and was shivering for warmth after each shot while Kamal took it all in a macho way.” She never seemed to have anything bad to say about the female stars and almost seemed forgiving of the males in the industry who were rumoured to have ‘exploited’ her. It was the ‘accepted’ norm in a sexist industry and she got by by working on herself be it designing her own costumes, doing her own make-up and learning English and polishing herself along the way. For one who had never gone to school beyond fifth class, she spoke in English that had no hint of a fake accent but managed to express herself in a simple and natural way. Her hauteur came from her sense of self-preservation and she was warm rather than giggly or overtly friendly or eager to please. She did not seek sympathy for being perceived as a commodity but seemed to know the ways of the world and had perhaps learnt to bend its rules to her advantage rather than crib about it.
What was the low point of the woman who had men lusting to attain her? Smitha thought for a while in silence and told me a story. She had been on location in a remote village in Tamil Nadu. The film location did not provide any vanity vans and the song sequence that was filmed required frequent costume changes for her. A unit hand had found an abandoned well and told her to go down the steps to change. As she stepped out of her costume and readied to don another she recollected feeling being watched. She had looked up to see a circle of men crowding around the well, peering down at her nakedness.
What did you do, I’d asked her. She only recalled crumpling down on the floor of the dank well and screaming and howling in shame and horror. “I felt violated by those eyes that moment more than any of my antics on screen,” she had recalled. The sadness that lingered in the large pools of her eyes was overlooked by those who were mesmerised by its unfathomable depths.
She provided razzmatazz and her sexuality had pizzazz. She prodded men to think unclean thoughts. Silk Smitha certainly did not create a dirty picture. She was the picture of desire and fulfilment.