The Dirty Picture, directed by Milan Luthria (2011) has ushered in various debates around sexuality through its representation of sexuality and the corpus of texts surrounding it, such as the public image of the actor playing the lead role. The film is widely believed to have been inspired by the life of Indian film actor, Silk Smitha. Played by Vidya Balan, Silk is shown as a small-town girl who makes it big in the film industry by her uninhibited and fearless sexuality. She threatens to topple the very foundations of the industry by flouting notions of what ‘sells’ and giving the consumer, presumably male, what he wants. She is not afraid to sell her body and turns the oppressive male gaze to her advantage to further herself in the capitalist enterprise of the film industry, without any expression of shame or guilt. Such an articulation of sexuality by Silk prompts extreme reactions from various quarters – feminist groups within the film brand her as obscene, film magazines describe her as dirty and A-list film stars refuse to be publicly seen with her. Silk, however, through her unapologetic embrace of her sexuality calls the bluff on the heavily sexualized film industry and is seen as exposing its hypocrisy. Thus, the film can be seen as making a strong political statement on society’s attempt to regulate female sexuality.
Shiv Visvanathan, in his article titled The Dirty Picture: Free, Sexual and Female hails the film as the ‘stuff of sociology and the meat of a feminist critique of a male world.’ He writes, ‘The film is a celebration of life, an ode to cinema and the liberating power of sexuality. This is a woman who enjoys sex and whose sexuality exudes power and freedom. The woman’s body becomes her way of being herself.’ Such an appraisal of the film resonates with the idea of sex-positive feminism, advocated by, among others, feminists such as Gayle Rubin, Wendy McElroy, and Susie Bright. Sex-positive feminism sees sexual freedom as central to women’s freedom and opposes legal and social efforts to control sexual activities among consenting adults. Sex-positive feminists suggest that free acts of female sexual expression are liberating for all women as such acts challenge the traditionally repressed nature of female sexuality. However, to read a film like The Dirty Picture solely within a sex-positive feminist frame is to ignore the institutional considerations that fuel a film produced commercially in Bollywood. A critique of the present-day film industry and the material and socio-economic considerations regulating it is complicated when considering the questions of choice and agency of the actors that The Dirty Picture incorporates – the character of Silk and Vidya Balan, the actor playing the character of Silk. The transposition of an earlier era into the current one and the difference in the way the two actors, Vidya Balan and Silk Smitha, are perceived, allows the film to be seen as belonging to a post-feminist culture.
Most would contend that Silk existed in a largely exploitative industry that allowed little space for women and her overt sexualisation and objectification by the industry was not an aspect that was negotiable. An example of this is the representation of the instances of men, who come to her with offers of employment, looking at Silk lasciviously or the light-hearted manner in which the casting-couch of the industry is represented. Within the film, the casting couch seems to be justified in the film as a female form of capitalist enterprise. In the case of The Dirty Picture, the character of Silk manages to seduce an A-list actor, Suryakanth which then opens up a plethora of opportunities for her in terms of her career. The implication is that within the exploitative industry, this is the only form of agency that she could exercise.
However, outside the text of the film, such an exercise of agency is still seen as questionable, if not morally reprehensible. This is further reinforced by the proliferation of media outlets, in the form of advertising, talk shows and print media, all of which have a symbiotic relationship with the film, in which the subject position of the actor is reinforced outside the text of the film. Vidya Balan, said about her performance in a show on NDTV, “In Silk Smitha’s case, it was pure exploitation. While in my case, I allowed the exploitation as an actress in The Dirty Picture. It’s the choice that is empowering.” She reaffirms in an interview with India Today, on being asked if she ever faced the kind of exploitation Silk did, “Unlike Silk, I had the luxury of choice. Rejection for me was never the end of the world.” In the case of the actor and her relationship with the present-day film industry, the choice of playing the role and of being represented in a certain way is seen as an entirely individualistic one, devoid of commercial interests, gender inequalities and power imbalances. Is it possible to redeem the representation of the ‘self-aware’, ‘sexually-cultivated’ female body? Does the cynicism expressed towards the ‘deliberately’ sexualized body of the female actor make it an empowering one? Understanding the choice to play a character such as Silk Smitha as solely empowering and not influenced leads to what Gill describes as ‘almost total evacuation of notions of politics or cultural influence.’
Any reading of a film’s subversive potential must link it to notions of the cinematic and to profit. All the promotional material for The Dirty Picture, from the promos to the posters to the billboards presented a highly sexualized image of Vidya Balan, without any implicit critique of the same. Why, then, is there an invisibilising of the socio-economic forces that regulate a film and its content in the present context? Even the focus of the song Ooh La La, without much contention, is the depiction of the explicit sexualisation of the female actor’s body in Bollywood. The body is fetishized – the camera focuses on Silk’s/Vidya’s breasts, her lips, and her waist as parts. I would argue that the limitation with such a representation is the audience is invited to believe that such sexism and commodification of the female body is a thing of the past and that the film industry of today is an egalitarian, if not a feminist, one. The ironic tone of the film is not carried forward to its natural conclusion of self-reflexivity towards it’s (the film’s) own existence as a product of a commercial industry, meant for consumption.
While it is taken for granted that the film industry of the era presented in the film is exploitative, it is impossible to examine sexualisation of the body as it exists in the film without taking into account the present social context in which The Dirty Picture is produced and consumed. Thus, a critique of the text as a post-feminist media artefact necessitates a shift of focus away from the discrete material artefact and the placement of the product in its larger context.