4 December 2011

Cinemascope: The Dirty Picture; Land Gold Women

Much masala, little meat
Director: Milan Luthria
Starring: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Emraan Hashmi, Tusshar Kapoor


Flamboyance is everything in the Milan Luthria universe. Carrying on where he left off with One Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), Luthria takes the often gut-wrenching life of the South's most enduring sex-symbol and makes of it a breezy, masaaledar film that never stops churning out the one-liners.

If you hoped that the remarkable trajectory of Silk Smitha's life – a poor girl running away from a forced early marriage and eking out a living in Madras, fending off the greasy overtures of pawing men while doing the rounds of studios, and then achieving unexpected stardom before commiting suicide in her mid-30s – might elicit a film of some depth, you can think again. While constantly underlining how fraught fame was (and still is) for a woman who chose to be as brazenly sexual as her in a country as repressed as ours, The Dirty Picture never answers – or even asks – the question of what made Silk the unapologetically sexual being she was. What is it that reconciles the shy, giggly girl who sits in the dark hall incredulously watching audiences whistle at her on screen, with the in-your-face seductress of the heaving bosom and archly bitten lip? Was the overtly sexy persona one she consciously set out to create, was it thrust upon her by an exploitative industry, or – as the film vaguely suggests – did it just happen? Was there something specific about the Tamil film industry in the '70s and '80s that led not just Silk, but several other actresses, to suicide? We never quite know, and apparently, we don't need to.

Instead, Luthria creates a flashily enjoyable, broad-strokes sketch of something he's decided sells – "the '80s" – and fills it with a cast of caricatures. Some, like Tushhar's wimpy writer Ramakant and Emraan Hashmi's megalomaniac arty director Abraham, don't convince even for a minute. Others, however, are thrillingly larger-than-life, like Naseeruddin Shah as the ageing superstar Surya and Vidya Balan as Silk herself. Naseer revels in the role, moving with ease between an overt predatory display of ownership over new heroines when on filmi terrain and an amusing sense of propriety when under the eye of Madras society. But the real revelation is Vidya Balan, who fills out the outlines of her character with a joyful abundance that's both emotional and physical. Balan's uninhibited embrace of Silk makes for a riveting performance that has more nuance than everything in the rest of the film put together.

Earnest but not convincing

Director: Avantika Hari
Starring: Narinder Samra, Neelam Parmar, Chris Villiers, Hassani Shapi


Avantika Hari's supremely sincere film takes the hot-button topic of honour killing from the places that we think of as its usual terrain – the "remote" hinterlands of Haryana, Rajasthan and UP – and places it squarely at the centre of the developed world. The father who orchestrates the murder of his daughter in this film is no jaahil ganwaar given to violent displays of masculinity. Nazeer Khan is a mild-mannered professor of history from Birmingham, with a predilection for old Hindi movie songs. He jokes with his (white) colleagues, flirts charmingly with his wife and is proud of his daughter's cleverness at school, encouraging dinner table debate about Antigone.

What makes a soft-spoken, seemingly peaceful man like that commit a crime like this is the question the film – and the team of British defense attorneys assigned to the case – sets out to answer. One sees how establishing the character as a recognisable, likeable one rather than painting him as villain is a conscious decision, forcing viewers to grapple with the possibility that their own beliefs, too, might contain the seeds of such a drastic about-turn. But it also makes Nazeer's character a difficult one to pull off, and director Hari doesn't quite manage the feat. We are left with a rather unconvincing portrayal: a man who seems bizarrely able to reconcile his enormous love for his first-born (complete with soppy Urdu poetry dedicated to her) with a staunch and implacable belief that she does not deserve to live.

The acting is nicely low-key, but for the villainous traditionalist Uncle Riyaz (Hassani Shapi) – and the failed attempt that the adults make to sound convincingly conversational in Hindustani. The scenes between the teenaged Saira (Neelam Parmar) and her British boyfriend David (Chris Villiers) – thankfully shorn of such linguistic fakeness – are quietly effective.

The film makes a commendable attempt to achieve complexity in its understanding of tradition, insisting that honour killing is not condoned in Islam (or any religion, for that matter) and tackling the question of how dangerous a cultural defense – that the accused may have done what he did because it was encouraged by his religion/culture – can be in terms of the political future of the community. It's not scintillating cinema, but it does make a genuine effort.

Published in the Sunday Guardian.


Amit said...

One Upon a Time in Mumbai was in 2010.

Trisha Gupta said...

It was indeed. Thanks for pointing that out. Corrected.