Silk Smitha Forever: We Should’ve Looked Beyond Her (Silky) Skin
Why does ‘Silk’ Smitha live on and what was her unfulfilled dream?
Except for prolonged kissing scenes, which were banned pre-independence, Indians have seen ample skin for generations in movies, especially in the 70s and the 80s. The courtesans of the devotional movies of the 30s turned into the vamps and banjaras and bar girls of 60s, 70s and 80s.
Madhuri Dixit successfully blended the ‘vamp’ song and a heroine’s intro song with her ‘Ek Do Teen’ number, which was actually an afterthought, shot after the movie was canned.
No one else has titillated the Indian male, for such an extended period of time (almost 20 years).
In 1979, she debuted in a Malayalam film, and the same year, she came on as a bar dancer (see video above. Again. I know you want to) in Vandichakram, a Tamil movie. It was for this movie that she was called ‘Silk’ Smitha, seemingly for her silk-like skin. And the Nom Du Film stuck.
By the time she gave a Filmfare interview in 1984, she had done 200 films and was already a huge star in Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and Mollywood.
There Is No ‘Why’ to Fame
Fame, as a concept, isn’t something that human beings understand yet. So there’s no real explanation to why Silk Smitha got so famous.
She wasn’t really a great dancer, not like Helen or Aruna Irani, nor was she as voluptuous as Jyothilakshmi or Jayamalini, both her contemporaries. In fact Jyothilakshmi and Jayamalini too have been equally prolific in their work, but something put Silk Smitha way beyond their league.
My ambition in life is to become a good character actress.‘Silk’ Smitha, in an ‘84 Filmfare Interview
Now this is something that anyone who enters the film industry as a ‘touch up’ artist dreams of, or at least says.
But Silk Smitha actually had the talent that matched her ambition. Just that none of the producers or directors of her time could see beyond her skin, or above her neck, or through their libido-addled vision. Except, of course for Bharathiraja, and Balumahendra.
In 1981, Bharathiraja made Alaigal Oyvathillai (Ceaseless Waves). The hero and heroine in the movie were young debutantes Radha and Karthik, both of whom grow up to rule their cinema worlds for decades. Silk Smitha plays the wife of a Christian Zamindar. Her character is layered. There’s a scene where she tries to protect her husband, as he rapes his servant’s wife. The turmoil she goes through, and the confrontation that ensues, are the movie’s highlights.
As Lizzie, Silk Smitha has no glamour. She plays a character that’s an antithesis to everything she had done on screen, and everything that an entire generation of men imagined her to be.
(Watch from 12:10)
But then came Sadma in 1982. And Balumahendra casts her as this sensual woman, who’s out to seduce Kamal Hassan. There are two reasons for why this movie is brilliant. One, no judgement is passed on Silk Smitha’s role. And two, Balumahendra realised that Silk’s appeal was not in what she wore, or didn’t. It was in her personality, something that lay beneath her skin.
So if you were to ignore her overly husky dubbing, you’ll see that the body language is languid, relaxed, and natural. She’s not acting, she just is.
Chennai gave the runaway bride from Andhra a new life in 1979. Silk Smitha escaped an abusive marriage and settled in the city, working as a house-maid while looking for work in the movies. The city that gave her stardom, ultimately killed her, in 1996.
No one knows whether it was a murder or a suicide. She didn’t have anyone who cared enough to find out. Her dream of becoming a well-known character artist remains unrequited.
But let her performances in a handful of movies remind the industry, and the men who depend on it for pleasure, what they’ve truly missed out on.
(This story was first published on 23 September 2016. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Silk Smitha)
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