BEHIND THE SILVER SCREEN
ic shot of her dress flying above a New York vent. And yet
she committed suicide. What happened between those two
periods? That is where the story lies.”
The question is, will the film be able to tear away from the
caricature of her life or will it further propagate its myth?
The context of Silk Smitha is fraught with obvious pain.
Like musical genius Ilayaraja, whose songs Silk Smitha
gyrated to, now in quiet, philosophical retirement, Mahendra, the Sri Lanka-born Tamil film director who elevated
Silk Smitha beyond cabaret numbers in his films, is reluctant, even if only in memory, to return to an era of films he
once helped define. In a religious ashram on the outskirts of
Chennai, Mahendra now teaches schoolchildren from 8 am
to 9 pm on weekdays. “I am now very far from everything
you are asking me,” he says.
Mahendra’s first film, made in Kannada — Kokila (1976)
— won him a National Award and was the precursor to a
stellar career that pursued the social cause through films
like Azhiyatha Kolangal (1979), Veedu (1988) and
He has been misquoted many times, he says.
Mahendra flourished in the 1980s, when politics was
synonymous with cinema in Tamil Nadu — many
actors and directors of that era are now prominent
“Why just Silk Smitha? Disco Shanthi, Jayamalathi,
Bindu, Sasikala — there were many women who broke
the mould, who were bold and daring, who brought
sensuality to the screen,” Mahendra points out. Yet it was
only in the 1980s that these women’s potential was maximized by discerning directors who saw them as the repositories of society’s dark side.
“It was a short period of such directors and it ended all too
quickly,” says Baskaran of the time when feminist thought,
open sensuality and the eroticism of women were tools in an
able director’s hands, freeing films from a hero who called
The underlying sorrow of the 1980s ran deeper than a single actor who killed herself, or a talented director who withdrew. Just as women in the Tamil film industry were discovering the freedom to express themselves sensually, nine
female actors committed suicide. They weren’t just vamps:
Shoba, who won the National Award for Pasi in 1979 and
was widely rumored to be a much-married Mahendra’s
lover, killed herself the following year after a lovers’ spat.
She was 17. Mahendra subsequently wrote a series of sentimental musings in the Tamil magazine Kumudam titled
Shobavum Naanum (Shoba and me) and more recently
claimed Shoba as his wife on Anu Hassan’s Tamil TV
show Koffee with Anu.
Their story inspired the Malayalam National Award-winning film Lekhayude Maranam: OruFlashback (1983), and
the tragedy inspired Mahendra’s own National Award-winning film Moonrampirai (1982), starring Silk Smitha (the
film was remade in Hindi as Sadma, 1983). That parenthesis, which ended with Silk Smitha herself committing
suicide in 1996, was the context of such an industry.
Cho Ramaswamy, former actor, editor of the Tamil
news magazine Tughlak and political and social com-
mentator, does not believe the Tamil industry in the
‘lower class’ and even a ‘scheduled tribe,’ if you
will, of female actors — but wasn’t that the same
for men? And for any industry? In any case, the
films always depended on heroes, not heroines, for
Yet, even towards the end of her career, Silk Smitha just
needed to appear in a blouse and a lungi in Ezha mala poon-
chola with Mohanlal in Spadikam (1995), and teenage boys
became men. Producers circulated song books, small towns
staged live cabarets, which routinely involved stripteases,
and the cult following catapulted ordinary movies to block-
buster status. What became of them, the stars of this phe-
nomenon, was someone else’s problem.
Silk Smitha, sometimes called Silk Sumitha, was born
Vijayalakshmi in the town of Eluru in Andhra Pradesh in
1960. Guy met Silk Smitha on film sets in the course of his
writings, and developed a warm rapport with the otherwise
reserved actor because they shared a mother tongue,
Telugu. “‘ Yemmendi, yemmendi,’ she would say when she
saw me,” he recalls (yemmendi is a Telugu term of respect
commonly used to hail a senior). “She was a voluptuous,
extremely good-looking woman. This led her to being
‘exploited’ by men (for) most of her youth. To solve this, her
family married her off at a very young age. But this just
made it worse. Ill-treated in her marriage, Vijayalakshmi
ran away to Chennai and lived with an aunt while she tried
to make a new start.”
In Chennai, she began as a touch-up artiste for a B-grade
actor, but her beauty quickly got her the kind of character
roles that would allow her acting talent (of which she had
plenty) to shine. She made her debut with a character role
in the Malayalam film Inaye Thedi (1979). But her sexiness
intervened, demanding cabaret dances and vamp roles that
became monetarily lucrative for the film industry.
In the late 1980s, Guy wrote a television crime
series, Senior Junior, which aired a single episode, starring
Silk Smitha in a role where she is mysteriously found dead
in a bathtub. Guy knew her well from the height of her fame
to this time of descent, and describes her as a warm, fantastic person, a talented actor, shrewdly aware of the lengths
her sex appeal could take her, very reserved, and so sexy that
it overwhelmed everything else about her.
Guy claims to have met Silk Smitha’s husband a few times.
“She married again after she came to Chennai. He was a
nice man. She kept him quiet and he was content to let her
take the limelight.” (It could not independently be verified
that Silk Smitha was married.)
Silk Smitha, Guy says, was no fool. She carefully designed
her costumes. She spun her image. She worked with greats.
She did the critically-acclaimed role of a demure sister in
Bharatiraaja’s Alaigal Oyvathillai, performing brilliantly.
“But I remember people told her: ‘Why are you wasting time
with this? Take a sexy role and make some money.’” Once the
name Silk stuck after her character in Vinu Chakrava-rty’s Vandi Chakram became a huge hit, even if she tried she
could not take on other roles,” Guy recalls.
As The Dirty Picture gets set for launch, it is important
to note that it was in the films of men like Mahendra and
National Award-winning film director K Balachander,
in Bharatiraaja’s Alaigal Oyvathillai and in the musical
genius of Ilayaraja, that Silk Smitha came to life. Not
semi-pornographic gyrations in a seedy dance-bar
setting in front of lascivious men — the image the
world remembers her by.
“You have to understand that the myth of the
vamp was an image, spun for the benefit of making
a film, and an industry, based on her, work,” points
The public perception of Silk Smitha was a careful social construct.
Shobhaa De, then editor of glamour magazine Stardust, recalls an era of “thunder thighs and
padded bras (no size zero, no botox, no surgically
enhanced breasts — poor things!).” Women seeking
stardom were left coping with what came their way.
“They were paid a pittance and treated like props —
anybody could hire or use them. They ‘belonged’ to the
producer/director and had zero social prestige. Even a
prostitute’s life was superior — at least a sex worker was
not made to believe she was a star in the making. Plus, sex
workers are spared the narcotic of the big screen — once
hooked, you’re dead,” says De.
By the early 1980s, Helen, the most successful of the
seductive “vamps,” was a legend. Poor imitations sprang up
everywhere. Writer Jerry Pinto says that while researching
his book Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, most
dancing girls told him how deeply Helen influenced them.
But there was a difference, Pinto says, “Helen’s dances
were an extension of who she was. There was no music video
Vidya Balan as Silk in The Dirty Picture