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Silk Smitha: The silukku route
Silk Smitha was not much of an acting talent, but when it comes to oozing eroticism, she had very few peers.
In the 1995 Malayalam hit Spadikam, in which Mohanlal plays the rowdy son of a strict math teacher (Thilakan), a scene shows the hero being taken away by police, handcuffed with his concubine Silk Smitha. As Mohanlal walks past his father, proudly throwing his hand around Smitha, the cinema hall breaks into rapturous applause. Even as you consider putting your hands together for the superstar, a section of the audience hollers in near ecstasy: "Silukku! Silukku!"
Such is the drool quotient of Silk Smitha 15 years after she ended her life in a noose at her Chennai home that millions still roll their tongues on their palates to pronounce her acquired first name in three syllables: si-lu-kku. For the 15 years prior to her death in 1996, she led a career so poignant yet pathetic that a movie - Dirty Picture - is being made on her life, with Vidya Balan in the lead.
It's difficult to see any actor in the skin of Smitha. She was sensuous, never vulgar;she was vulnerable, yet in command;she was the bar girl who finally took the bullet to save the hero. When she brought - in natural slow motion - her eyelashes together, men of all ages refused to blink. When she sighed, they held their breath. Between her parted lips, a generation's sexual fantasies found salvation. And yes, she had a body, too, that she maintained through yoga and naturopathy.
"Ensuring the male gaze is very important in Tamil cinema, " says film historian Theodore Bhaskaran. "And Smitha brought loads of it. " Bhaskaran says Smitha was not much of an acting talent, but when it comes to oozing eroticism, she had very few peers. "Director Balu Mahendra once said, " recollects Bhaskaran, "if Smitha said 'let's go to the temple, ' it would sound erotic. " Smitha spoke very little - on and off the screen;but she rarely kept her lips pursed, literally. "It's difficult to find one frame in which Smitha is not seen without her parted lips, " says Tamil film artiste-analyst Mohan V Raman. "If they made her sensuous, her doe eyes were magnetic. " Silk, the name she acquired after playing a bar girl by that name in her first Tamil movie Vandi Chakkiram in 1979, went well with the texture of her skin, says Raman, which glowed with a wheatish complexion that outshone the fairer ones.
Smitha tried to prove that she was not just skin in her early breaks like P Bharathiraja's Alaigal Oivathillai (1981) and Balu Mahendra's Moondram Pirai (1982), which was later remade in Hindi as Sadma, but eventually she got typecast as the perennial seductress.
Smitha peaked as an erotic star in 1989 with the Malayalam movie Layanam, in which she develops a physical relationship with an adolescent boy. Layanam almost rivalled the 1978 Padmarajan-Bharathan classic Rathinirvedam in theme and box office collection, and its dubbed Hindi version Reshma ki Kahani released in 2002 - six years after Smitha's death - became a sensation.
Sex was a theme that refused to part with Smitha right from her girlhood. Born as Vijayalakshmi on December 2, 1960 in Andhra Pradesh, she is believed to have been given away by her family to a distant relative in Chennai partly because of financial problems and partly because of her beauty inviting trouble from some men. Living in Kodambakkam with her aunt, Smitha became a make-up assistant. She roamed the sets of Kollywood but rarely did directors see an actor in her.
That was till 'Eastman' Antony, a Malayalam filmmaker, found her in a nondescript apartment in Chennai. Antony was looking for fresh faces for his 1979 movie Inaye Thedi. Girls would come with layers of make-up to Antony, who would reject them by the dozen. "That's when a friend told me about this touch-up girl. I went to the house where she lived with her aunt. There she was, a 19-year-old ordinary woman in a halfsari, seated on a plastic chair, " says Antony.
The photo shoot was without make-up. Antony remembers spreading out the wet blackand-white prints on his hotel bed that night. "Her eyes were good, but I couldn't decide if I should cast her, " he says. "I went for a second show movie and took another look at the pictures. The next day, I signed her up. "
Smitha wanted to adopt the name Vijayabala, but Antony insisted that she be called Smitha. In Inaye Thedi, she played the role of a sex worker who when she finally manages to marry a man she loves, ends up as a paralytic. "But for one scene where she wakes up from bed, there are no hot scenes of Smitha in the movie. I never thought then that she would one day become the most sought-after seductress on screen, " says Antony.
This, says Mohan Raman, happened because of her boldness. "She wouldn't mind doing any step in a dance. Had some of her steps been done by any other actor, it would have looked vulgar. When Smitha did them, they looked sensuous. "
But, in the end, she failed to be bold in the face of adversities that came in the form of debts and unfulfilled love. On September 23, 1996, she was found hanging by her sari from a ceiling fan in her house. "Her suicide was an irony, " says Malayalam film writer PK Sreenivasan. "Smitha had saved several bankrupt producers from the verge of suicide by doing a dance or a guest role which would bring hordes of young men to the theatres. When it came to her end, there was none to help. "
After Smitha, quite a few women tried to be southern sirens. Among them, Shakeela was a heavy weight in every sense. She flickered her eyes faster than Smitha, bit her lower lip more often and - oh, yes - she had a much deeper cleavage. But after about half-a-decade of scintillating bedroom performances, Shakeela went, well, bust. She was just not Silukku.
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