Tamil screenwriter and the author of the much-cited A History of Tamil Cinema, Randor Guy is always quoted when sex siren Silk Smitha is brought up. “Films that had lain in cans for years were sold by the simple addition of a Silk Smitha song,” Guy had told Live Mint in 2011, around the time the critically acclaimed Vidya Balan starrer, The Dirty Picture was set to release.

Vidya Balan in a still from The Dirty Picture

While leading actresses of today readily gyrate and jiggle in item numbers, there was a time when there was a stark distinction between a heroine and the actress referred to as a ‘vamp’. A nation, Benedict Anderson tells us, is an imagined community created to bring in a homogeneity amongst its heterogeneous population, to give us a sense of ‘brotherhood’. Indian Cinema, post Independence aimed to do just that. By propounding the ideal image of the ‘Bharatiya Naari’, they created an antithesis, the vamp, a woman who was everything an Indian woman should not be.

The Vamp happened to be everything that the Heroine was not. They were complete and irreconcilable opposites. She was meant to be a foil to the ‘Ideal Indian Woman’, a westernized creature that occupied a hyper-sexualized yet illicit space in Indian Cinema.

Silk Smitha in Miss Pamela

There are multiple examples of these vamps in Hindi cinema – think Helen and Bindu. When we move down South, names like Silk Smitha, Shakeela and Disco Shanthi pop up. Mumtaz was renowned in certain circles for her “thunder thighs”, her southern counterpart was Smitha. Except Mumtaz was the ‘heroine’, Silk Smitha was the ‘vamp’. Such was Smitha’s fame at the height of her career that she accomplished what the sati savitri actresses couldn’t – while the latter played the archetypal babe-lost-in-the-woods and then progressed to portraying roles of a mother to much older actors, Smitha’s dates were sought after by Kamal Hassan, Dharmendra and Mohanlal, all of whom were leading actors of that era. 

Today, a Katrina Kaif can literally carry an entire movie on her highly sculpted hips by virtue of performing a three-minute item number. Critics may whine about her wooden expressions and almost non-existent acting abilities but the fact remains that she is not shunned for her dance numbers and neither is she pegged as an “item girl”.

Kareena Kapoor Khan in Mera Naam Mary

Even Kareena Kapoor Khan, Empress of all she surveys, can shine in a Mera Naam Mary and a Halkat Jawaani and still not be typecast. She can go on to play a working wife in Ki & Ka and a successful lawyer in Veere Di Wedding. Heck, she played a sex worker in Chameli and nobody uttered a “hawww ji”. Kriti Sanon and Kiara Advani, the new faces on the block, aren’t afraid to appear in an item number so early on in their career.

This wasn’t the case in the 80s when women like Silk Smitha and Disco Shanti ruled the roost. Smitha was a brilliant actress and much has been written and said about her performance in Alaigal Oivathillai. However, in an era where the female form only existed in the woman/whore binary, she was typecast and had to play the ‘bad girl’. Compare and contrast this to the hit song Chhote Chhote Peg in the superhit Sonu Ki Titu Ki Sweety. “I’m a bad girl, I like whiskey,” the lead actress lip syncs and claims the tag that destroyed many a career merely three decades ago.

 

“Silk Smitha was an iconic name in the Eighties and the Nineties, whose popularity knew no bounds. She created a genre in cinema which didn’t exist and empowered many women with her unapologetic choices. Her films made in a lot of money at the box office. Unfortunately, she had a tragic untimely death and her demise lead to the rise of Shakeela’s popularity,” said actress Richa Chadha recently, according to a report in NDTV.

Richa Chadha in Shakeela

Chadha will soon be seen in a movie called Shakeela which is set to release some time next year. Silk and Shakeela enjoyed immense popularity in their day but the respect they deserved comes a little too late.

(Header credits: Cinema Slide)

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