Is it a voyeuristic peep-eye or the projection of a woman who lives life on her own terms? Does it hold up a mirror to an exploitative society or actually become part of it? The lines keep blurring in "The Dirty Picture", leaving the movie about a southern sex star's rise to fame in the 1980s film industry and her tragic fall from it an inchoate, confused mess.
The film begins with the lofty quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: "You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star." And opens with a young Reshma (Vidya Balan in a bravura performance) falling off a ladder, confident her mother will be there to pick her up. The dark abyss after that is telling. There she is, now a young woman, laughing delightfully at the discomfiture of a couple making out in the room next door with her moans accompanying the creaking of the bed.
Alas, the promise of that beginning, the hoped for portrayal of a sassy woman who is unashamed of her sexuality, peters out soon enough.
Reshma evolves into Silk, enters the movies and claws her way to the top using the aging superstar Surya (Naseeruddin Shah). There are others she meets along the way, Surya's awkward writer brother Ramakant (Tusshar Kapoor), the cerebral filmmaker Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) who has only contempt for her and the various directors who use her sensuality to bring in the front-benchers and the moolah.
There is a disclaimer at the beginning that this film is based on fiction. But, of course, that is a flimsy cover for a film on the life of Silk Smitha who committed suicide at the end of career that saw dazzling fame and also ignominy.
The problem with "The Dirty Picture" is that we never really get a grip on Silk's character. Here is a woman who revels in her body, looks on knowingly as the filmmaker offering her her first job watches her lustily and, given her first stab in front of the camera, wants to impress the choreographer and unasked sheds it all - clothes and inhibitions.
Yet, she tells a casting director who has rejected her that she's not like other girls and wants to be an actor. There is nothing before and after that to tell us so or that she is actually a powerhouse of dance talent like Nietzsche's quote had set her to be.
Wan, worn out and broke, she ends her life, alone in her big house. The once star wears a red, bridal sari, puts on a bindi and lies down for that endless sleep. Is it an unrequited desire? Did this very unconventional sex symbol really want marriage and two kids? We don't really know because there has been plenty of sex, but little romance so far.
The filmmaker seems confused, and so is the audience.
A film like this requires finesse, a deft touch where the celluloid story is not just a depiction but also a commentative reflection. That detachment is sadly missing and it becomes as exploitative as the story it is setting out to tell.
The camera zooms in on Silk's rather ample body and lingers on - not once in a while but repeatedly through the rather lengthy 16 reels. And the tawdry, double entendre dialogues should really find no place in a film that seeks to be an empathetic portrayal.
The nasty questions linger - will people go in to watch this movie for the same reason they watched a Silk Smitha film, will the frontbenchers be whistling as they do in the film?
True, there are some moments of real empathy like when Surya shoos her into the bathroom because his wife has come into the room and leaves her there till morning when she can tiptoe out. Her speech at an award ceremony after Surya tells her she is society's "dirty secret", mocking at the hypocritical audience, is also well done.
The performances are pretty good too. This is Vidya's film through and through, she gets under the skin of the character. The uninhibited portrayal of that frank, unabashed sexuality could have been saved for a better film. Remember the sizzle and subtlety of "Ishqiya"?
Naseer stands out as usual as the ruthless Lothario. But Tusshar and Emraan are mere cardboard characters. As is Anju Mahendru as the done to death archetypal cynical journalist with a cigarette.
The dialogues are also pedestrian and cheesy. Sample this: "Public samaan dekhti hai, dukaan nahin".
"The Dirty Picture" is just so needlessly smutty, when it sets out to do just the opposite. It's bump and grind without enough perspective.