Vidya Balan in ‘The Dirty Picture’ (2011): the ultimate powerhouse performance

What defines a performance as “powerhouse”? I will define this through an exemplary powerhouse performance by Vidya Balan, in 2011’s “The Dirty Picture”.

Many women-centric films, defined simply by having a female protagonist, enable Hindi film actresses whether among the A-list heroines or indie stars to show off their acting prowess in ways not seen before. The possibility to add greater complexity in writing, direction and acting of character that is the lead, and the subject of the action rather than an object of the hero’s storyline, has seen career-best performances from several leading actresses. Three such performances have been discussed so far on Women in Bollywood in Sonam Kapoor in ‘Neerja’, Kangana Ranaut in ‘Queen’ and Deepika Padukone in ‘Piku’, and there a number of other examples.

Specifically, in 2011’s ‘The Dirty Picture’, Vidya Balan encapsulates some of the key elements of a powerhouse performance, where she plays a small-town girl Reshma who becomes South Indian film heroine ‘Silk’ famed for raunchy dance numbers. The key elements of her performance are explained below.

The usual SPOILER ALERT first – if you haven’t seen this film, and are interested in Hindi cinema, or women in cinema at all, please go watch the film and come back. The trailer is below:

  1. Vidya Balan’s complete lack of inhibitions

‘The Dirty Picture’, even thinking solely of its risqué name itself, was a bold and brave choice of a film. The lead role was notably turned down by now superstar heroine, Kangana Ranaut, who is not known for making ‘safe’ film choices premised on commercial appeal alone. Ranaut has since claimed this was due to worrying about the risk of stereotyping herself as an actress (an issue I touch on in my post on “Queen”). It is interesting to note what Ranaut said in a 2013 interview with critic Rajeev Masand:

Ranaut: And honestly, if I would have done the film I’m sure it would have not been such a big success, like when Vidya did it,

Masand: Really?

Ranaut: I think every actor brings their own personality to the film. When Vidya did it, it became a lot about the acting part, you know like, the actress is so talented. But you know, if I would have done it, I would have looked very sleazy doing those things. 

This shows that the role required a total lack of inhibitions around the erotic persona of Silk required to be portrayed for the role, and that whilst Ranaut was too concerned about this in the context of how she was viewed in the industry (rightly or wrongly), if Balan had any such concerns she was able to overcome them and create a narrative where her acting rather became what people want to talk about.

In Vidya’s very first scene in ‘The Dirty Picture’ in fact, we see her imitating the sounds of sexual pleasure. Whilst as the audience we are aware this is just an act, her neighbours who only hear her through the wall, are fully convinced it is the real deal, and are perplexed why she is able to achieve greater levels of passion.

Vidya is both able to convince the audience she is doing a believable impression, and to show the mischievous joy she experiences through this deception in her facial expressions alone. When it is revealed she was doing this in order to get the couple to stop making noise, we feel her frustration as they snore instead.

  1. Balan’s multi-layered performance

Throughout the film, Balan’s facial expressions, body language and dialogue delivery are as thought-through yet seemingly effortless enough to enable the audience to read multiple emotions and feelings as evident in the same scene or even same moment, creating a complex, multi-layered and believable character in Silk.

To imitate the mantra of Silk herself, perhaps a performance needs three things to be truly powerhouse: layers, layers, layers. And Vidya shows these layers.

What are some of these layers we see if we peel back one aspect after another of Vidya’s performance?

2.a. Reshma is shown as already understanding the power of her sexuality, even before she becomes Silk

Reshma: I have what boys desire. So who is better – me or a boy?

She flirts with the local men, and even teases her posters of her favourite heroes whilst bathing. However, at this stage of the movie Vidya acts her in a style that seems younger, more energetic, and places her as a flirt rather than a fully-fledged vamp.

2.b. We see a range of emotions that Reshma/Silk is feeling, often in the same scene or the same time

Later, as she is about to be cast as the lead item girl in film for the first time, she receives her glamorous makeover and with a dainty but excited smile, she is our heroine, Silk!

Her overnight success and hot property status means she is already starring alongside her hero she had a poster of just minutes earlier in the film. We see Silk’s nervousness and trepidation before the scene to come where they must take multiple shots, to the annoyance of the hero.

She is fiddling, biting on her lip, lost in thoughts and distracted.

Rather than her exaggerated steps from the breakthrough dance performance that garnered attention, she is seen to be lightly going through the motions. She doesn’t seem the sultry vixen she will later become.

She plays bashful when Suryakanth the hero calls her over. Her asks her name, to which she is not yet accustomed to the name Silk, and first answers Reshma before correcting herself. He reminds her how unimportant she is to the film and to him. She corrects him and he storms off following which she is fired.

Silk however has found her drive once again this is where the “heat” comes from. She uses this despite her axing from the film to seduce Suryakanth, giving her bargaining power over him – he can and does reinstate her into the film once again. Her seduction technique is to play an innocent and naïve girl in awe of her idol, but despite these dialogues, Vidya’s delivery is such is that we know Vidya is acting as Reshma acting as her new persona, Silk. Silk kicks in and she plays to his ego to place her not as one of 500 girls, but as the one girl he will be seduced by 500 times.

Later, when Silk moves into her new home fitting of a movie star, she briefly discusses with Rathnamma her relationship with Suryakanth. Whilst she is aware his married status is unlikely to change, and has some grounding in the reality of the situation she still appears as a typical young woman in love. Once again Vidya’s performance allows for a further sub-text – we can see she knows there is a level of self-delusion in this also.

2.c. Strength and vulnerability in one character

Vidya portrays Silk as both the strong, independent and resourceful siren who can manipulate men using her sexuality, and as a vulnerable individual restricted by her circumstances, demonised by society and victimised by certain men in particular.

We see both these sides to her character for example in the day at the races, when Surya cannot be seen with her publicly and the local women disparage her as too vulgar to fit in to such society. Her aggressive push back on the lack of a welcome for her shows her strength and ire, but she softens when she encounters a fan (later to be introduced as Suryakanth’s brother, Ramakanth).

We start to see that despite her insistence that she understands their equation, her growing possessiveness of, and jealously about, Suryakanth. Silk is left speechless and clueless of what to do on a rare occasion as Suryakanth’s wife Radhika returns to the house and calls after him whilst the two of them are in bed. She is angry with Suryakanth’s reaction to this situation and scared at the same time. On the bathroom floor, peeking through the keyhole, do we see Silk finally realise that Suryakanth is married and what this means in terms of their relationship.

In the escape scene we are shown Silk meeting with Ramakanth who drives her home. In this discussion we already see a more cynical and jaded Silk. She knows she can’t rely on others, not to be too idealistic and has found her role:

Silk: Hero and villain don’t matter because I’m the vamp in every story

This is a fierce declaration of strength and power.

Nevertheless, in the same scene she equally longs for the feeling of home, of belonging, and returns to her family home and sees her mother. For a second she is hopeful of a reconciliation before this hope is yet another one dashed as the door is shut on her in disgust.

  1. Acting as a character acting (Vidya acting as Reshma acting as Silk)

One of the ways Balan creates this multi-layered performance is by understanding the character of Silk as not only a character within the film but a persona that the real character Reshma attempts to put on, plays, and a persona that eventually engrosses her life enough to see the boundaries between Reshma and Silk not just blur, but Reshma fully become her Silk persona in a pseudo self-fulfilling prophecy.

The path is set already early on in the film, when after being rejected by a casting director, Reshma escapes by watching a film at the local cinema. On the walk out of the theatre the voice-over of the casting director is accompanied by a realisation by Reshma. She is not giving up yet.

She goes back to the set and gets her chance for two reasons – she is in the right place at the right time, and she is prepared to accept conditions the other women will not. In this case, literally being whipped for the purpose of the male gaze.

Her act when she gets this opportunity is to turn up the level of sexuality beyond the usual level of item songs, and gets the instant attention of the cameraman. This is emphasised by the clear contrast between the dancing girls behind her and the highly sexualised moves Vidya does in the name of Reshma before she is renamed as Silk. It is not just Vidya’s great acting we see here – but her acting is so good we also see and understand Reshma’s as well. She is not just a good dancer like other item girls, she can be a great item girl because she is using those acting skills she was so keen to show off.

Another plot point where we see this is following a scene where (already dressed in the height of late 70s fashion, fully engrossed in her Silk persona), the old Reshma seeps through in her glee that a magazine has singled her out as a star to be included in a feature on “how the stars live”. However, given she doesn’t live a glamorous lifestyle (yet) to match her onscreen persona, she adopts the same tactic of using her sexuality.

In this case, in order to distract the magazine journalist/photographer from her normal dwellings and the lack of allure in her daily life, she has him enter whilst she is in the middle of bathing and encourage him to interview and photograph her. He is so uncomfortable and drawn to her that there is no interest in the normality of the rest of her life.

We understand again that this is Reshma asking as Silk, through the layers of Vidya’s performance that include the seductress the journalist sees, the rouse Rathnamma sees and the underlying anxiety that she will be caught out, coexisting with a confidence that she will “get away with it” given the power of the “heat” she can bring.

4. Vidya’s use of humour in what is in theory, a tragedy

In a dramatic film which is at its heart, a tragedy which could almost be of the Greek, Shakespearean or operatic variety if made at a different time and place, it is notable that Balan gifts Silk a real sense of humour and wittiness. The dialogue helps with this but each comical line or moment is acted with such joy and genuine laughter that this becomes a thread throughout her character development as her sense of humour becomes increasingly dark and cynical in nature.

One of the most humorous parts of the film is the song “Ooh La La Tu Hai Meri Fantasy”, a wonderful spoof of item songs in general, where Vidya goes all out in her pastiche performance, with great accompaniment by Naseeruddin Shah. I have shared once again below:

Another funny moment is when it appears that Silk is attempting to seduce Ramakanth for the first time, and the following scene of only their faces initially appears to be an intimate encounter. It is quickly revealed that Ramakanth is in fact teaching Silk to drive, and the two scenes are rather Vidya as Silk flirting with the audience.

5. Balan lays out a clear character arc through not just the writing and direction of the film, but also through her performance

The growth is believable based on experiences, but shown as gradual. The ease with which Reshma is shown to be acting as her Silk persona increases over time, but ever decreasing snippets of her earlier personality are shown consistently underneath outward changes. The audience accompanies Reshma/Silk on her journey which is a believable arc despite significant character development due to Balan’s underlying understanding of who the character is and holding true to this throughout.

5.a. We see how dismissal of Reshma’s importance by men becomes a motivating factor for her transformation into Silk

During the casting when Reshma is turned away as not glamorous enough, this fits the audience perception of Vidya to date, as serious actress rather than a sex symbol, and so this holds as believable.

Despite this, we are shown how her bold personality approaches the casting director anyway, although we understand her initial motivations align with expectations in fact as she says, she doesn’t want to dance, she wants to act:

Casting director: Neither do you have the seductive charm of a lover nor the grace of a wife. You are very dull.

Reshma: I’ve been living on sugar for two days. So how can I look spicy?

She is shown as bold and spunky in this dialogue but Vidya’s facial expressions and body language also reveal her dejection and disappointment. The determination that follows is a continuation of the scene where she escapes her wedding at the very opening of the film, and marks a consistent character trait that Reshma/Silk is independently minded and resourceful, despite her circumstances.

5.b. We see how Reshma retains disgust at her sexual objectification but changes her response to it, trying to harness this external factor which she cannot control, for her own benefit by focusing on what she can

Reshma spends the money he gives her in pity for food on a ticket to watch her favourite hero, Suryakanth (played by Naseruddin Shah) in “Ranga Cowboy”.

A cinema-goer starts to rub Reshma on her leg and then propositions her – we understand her to be both shocked and horrified – just from Vidya’s facial reaction and body language. She enquires as to how much, and then questions the value as it is very little “I’m only worth 20 rupees?” This is revealing to her and her reaction is to responding violently – hitting him and loudly shouting at him. She storms out of the theatre in disgust.

This is a different position towards objectification and the male gaze that she takes later in the film.

The dancing scene is later added back into the film for its commercial potential – and indeed it brings in the crowds (of whistling men and photographers).

She is once again propositioned – this time by an adoring fan. As she doesn’t know the scene has been re-included in the film, she rejects him aggressively, denying she has ever acted in a film at all. We can understand this anger is different than before – as the rage draws on her earlier pain, confusion and she wonders if she can dare to dream of superstardom yet again.

She goes to watch her next film in what appears to be an almost empty cinema – only to see the crowds poor in as her song begins. They are there for her. She loves the adulation and we see both Silk on screen and Reshma watching in the audience – the crowd doesn’t recognise nor pay any attention to her at all. Reshma/Silk sees the power inherent in this persona and it thrills her.

5.c. The relationships with the three men in her life – Suryakanth, Ramakanth and Abraham show an evolution of her position in the relationship that mirrors her character development

With Suryakanth, she is much younger, and naïve in how she falls for him despite her protestations that she is aware of the dynamic of their relationship. When the reality hits of his commitment to his wife and she is merely the “other woman” to him, she is hurt and rejected. We see her mixed feelings of pain and anger, her vulnerability and her sense of injustice.

With Ramakanth rather, she has become by this point the experienced lover, and seductively questions him “how long a celibate ascetic like you can resist the charms of a single woman”, leaving him ecstatic with a simple kiss on the cheek. Ramakanth has the posters and magazines of Silk, much as Reshma had of Suryakanth before becoming Silk.

We see Silk’s joy and genuine laughter at being both in control of the relationship, and being adored and idolised by Ramakanth at the beginning of their relationship. She has clearly taken on the Silk persona by this point beyond when she is on camera, but the youthful energy and happiness is reminiscent of Reshma’s joy and wonder at her early opportunities. The energy is not merely coyness for the sake of seduction, but also a consistent character trait at the times when Silk is content within the film. This includes the youthful playfulness of the scene in which Silk and Ramakanth play with cake icing.

When the gossip piece is written on her relationship with Ramakanth, this initially doesn’t bother Silk as she is focused on the attention in of itself. Ramakanth is insistent however that this is concerning, and this causes Silk to go through magazine clippings and ultimately in an act of rebellion set a number of them on fire. The concern on Vidya’s face rather shows Silk’s nervousness but also indicates foreboding typical of the tragedy genre to the film’s audience. This act of rebellion becomes more public when she creates a scene outside Naila’s house where she is holding party to which all of the industry has seemingly been invited with the exception of Silk. At this point, however, the rebellion seems to be tipping into the path of self-destruction.

This leads to a stage in her career where despite her popularity, a new girl is emerging in the industry as competition, Shakeela, and Silk’s directors are bemoaning her off-screen drama and drinking habit. She is warned about the impact of walking out on the film in protest on her career, but has already become her on-screen persona Silk entirely, that she is unable to see the trees from the forest:

Silk: I am Silk. Silk. Don’t forget I’m a star.

An outraged Silk is shown panickedly drinking excessively, and calls to Ramakanth but is unable to get through as he is doing a pooja (the ultimate contrast in Hindi film of destructive and constructive behaviours). She insists on him being given the phone, as though he can somehow save her from her own destruction. His priorities however are different – he prefers to replace her in the film and place her instead in the role of a subservient, doting wife.

Her anger only increases in a car scene as they escape her having ‘made a scene’ in front of his parents:

Silk: Would your parents think I’m a decent girl? What is their impression now?

Ramakanth: They think you’re a lewd and disgusting girl.

Silk: Well, you’re in love with a girl like that. That’s my character on screen. I’m not like that in real life.

Ramakanth: That means you’ll stay this your entire life? Lewd and disgusting?

Silk: The thing that made me Silk. How can I let it go?

Ramakanth: Surya was right, women like Silk don’t belong at home

Silk: [looks right at Ramakanth]

[angrily] Of course, a bed is where she belongs isn’t it?!

[pulls the emergency break of the car and gets out]

Silk’s noose is ready for both of you.

[picks up a stone and throws it at the car, smashing the back window]

You can call me lewd and disgusting, see how I ruin you!

Silk’s return to films is then marked by her starring in a “triple role” film as a mother and two daughters (three times the Silk!) but this gimmick is also being adopted at the same time by the director Abraham who sought to scupper her career from the beginning. When his triple role film (which looks at least equally terrible, suggesting some double standards at play) receives applause and acclaim, and Silk’s film is panned, we see Vidya as Silk’s increasing nervousness as she watches the audience reaction. Her anxiety is so convincingly portrayed with a dash of surprise given her previous ability to enthral audiences if not critics, that it is clear this is not a temporary career concern, but part of Silk’s wider fall from success.

Abraham celebrates his success on the beach, where Silk is shown almost having reached a level of acceptance about her failure.

He tells her “you’re back to where you started from”

She responds “well, even you’ve come to me. You can’t live without me. My biggest fan”. The scene continues:

Abraham: I’m here to celebrate your defeat

Silk: Why? Don’t you have anyone to celebrate your success with?

Abraham: I had told you. You can’t defeat me.

Silk: But the fight was a pleasure. Silk is born to give pleasure. To her well-wishers and her opponents. And you are extra special.

Abraham: That’s what the papers say

Silk: But there’s still something you haven’t revealed. The fact that you like me. [Laughs]

This jaded Silk finds her last power in the hold she seems to have on Abraham. At a point when the industry, audiences and her past lovers in Suryakanth and Ramakanth have all lost interest in Silk, his passionate and conflicted feelings towards her do mean she holds his interest. Her emotional exhaustion as such seems to be temporarily relieved in his presence as she realises this as we see traits of the witty and flirtatious Silk from earlier in the film.

However, he is an inherently critical character, and critical of nothing and no-one more than he is of Silk. At a point when Silk is drowning in self-hatred and regret, this is the most unhealthy relationship she could choose to get into. Yet given her career and romantic failings, estrangement from her family and lack of friends within the industry or out, she has no real choice but to fall into this relationship.

Silk also talks about posing as her own mother in an interview with Naila, the photo from which Abraham also mistakes for her mother. It proves Silk was a shell that she was able shed with a simple make-under, traditional dress and demure body language.

He asks her if she has ever been in love and we see the inexperienced and almost naïve Reshma of old, when she says “love that takes your breath away? No”.

“Many have touched me, but none have touched my heart” places her almost as item girl version of the Chandramukhi vein, she is no longer the man eating movie star but rather possessing a pureness of heart.

6. Balan, against the odds, is able to create a sympathetic character out of a flawed woman who makes some arguably, poor choices and is left of the worse for it

There undoubtedly remains a double standard in the portrayal of complex and highly flawed male and female characters in popular culture (film, television, literature), not merely limited to Bollywood or Indian entertainment at all, but as a global double standard. This includes how the anti-hero phenomenon has struggled to include a significant number of similar anti-heroines for the reason that audiences hold higher standards of morality and ethical conduct for being able to relate to and emphasise with female characters than they do with male ones.

In the context of heroine-oriented Hindi films, this dilemma can be avoided by portraying inspiring heroines such Neerja Bhanot (done admirably well in this year’s “Neerja” however, where the character is far from a cliché), or entirely wronged by their situation through no fault of their own (perhaps beyond naivety), such as the jilted bride Rani in “Queen”. Other examples in the first category could be police officer Shivani Shivaji Roy in Rani Mukherji’s “Mardaani”, or Priyanka Chopra as the Olympic medallist from Manipur in “Mary Kom”. In the latter category we also have Sridevi as underappreciated wife and mother Shashi in “English Vinglish”, or the more violently-wronged Meera in NH10 essayed by Anushka Sharma.

With Reshma/Silk however, the lead is a challenging character in many ways for audiences to relate to. The Bollywood viewer remains conservative in comparison to Western standards at least, and individually would be very unlikely to either be personally comfortable, or comfortable for a close one, to imitate or look up to a real-life Silk. This separates the character’s reality from the audience. However, it is through relatable rationale for choosing the take the decisions she does; through an understanding of the circumstances around her she is unable to control; and through a convincingly but organically delivered critique of the audience and the industry that supports the item girl, that Balan brings her character to a level on which the average viewer can understand and emphasise with.

This does not mean her choices are fully supported or encouraged, but are provided with context so as to create a more meaningful and engaging story.

6.a. Reshma’s reasons for her decisions, even if unwise, are made clear and convince as genuine, and as such, are relatable to anyone who had a dream, fell in love or wanted to escape poverty or even just the ordinariness of life

We understand Reshma’s reasoning for transforming into Silk such as being able to realise her dreams of becoming a heroine; star alongside her icon, later her love and lastly her ex, film hero Suryakanth; and to escape poverty and the mundane routine of ordinary life:

For example, even after we are already introduced to the Silk persona we see Reshma’s more innocent side in her excitement to watch the film as it releases with Rathnamma (or “Amma”). She is on her way to becoming a star and there is a girlish enthusiasm in her laughter and gait.

She states with an almost convinced glee: Mark my words, now all my problems will go away.

Her increasing worry is also clear in her reduced excitement as each song arrives and finishes in the film, with a stark contrast between her mood and that of Rathnamma, as she has realised she has been cut from the film but also retains a small dash of hope that it is still somehow going to follow shortly and she will be on track to be the heroine she has dreamed of. Her watery eyes and look of utter disbelief are mixed with a pain of crushed innocent hopes. We don’t need Silk to utter a single word to understand her emotional state.

6.b. Vidya slays in her delivery of a monologue denouncing double standards of critiques of Silk not being matched with those of her audiences or the industry

At an awards ceremony, Suryakanth presents Silk with an award and he taunts her – with one particular critique breaking through her thick protective wall and the bluntness of his contempt for her is both shocking to her and still able to cause her pain. There is a vulnerability evident here that is soon pushed away in favour of power after she realises the audience is eagerly waiting for her to make her acceptance speech and this gives her a platform to say whatever she wants and be heard.

She acknowledges her infamy and that she is labelled as “vulgar, disgusting, sexy, dirty”. She blames this on the audience for ultimately objectifying her, noting even a sexualised version of her still had layers of authenticity and hard work that could have been emphasised instead, or even merely acknowledged. She calls them out on their hypocrisy, and that she is not the only “dishonourable” attendee (cut to a shot of a sheepish Suryakanth). She commands the centre of the stage, throws her cigarette on the ground in protest and proclaims that if people make, sell and watch films about sex, and even give awards for them, they are no more honourable than the item girl in these films. This is the truth-telling, hell-to-the-consequences version of Silk and gives Vidya the opportunity to deliver scathing dialogues in an impassioned monologue. That she does so convincingly after scenes where she is rejected by her lover in Suryakanth, and by her mother on what should have been her glorious return home, is all the more impressive. This monologue is given as driven by rage emerging from these rejections. She insists she will never change.

Whilst fully fitting within the plot of the film, this monologue has a dual audience – the audience at the awards ceremony, within the film, and the Indian film audience more widely. When Sunny Leone has turned herself into a major star in Hindi cinema single-handling fronting multiple box office successes despite limited acting or Hindi language skills, this speech remains highly relevant, notwithstanding the ability of an item song to transform the hype around an upcoming release.

Without the audiences these films, heroines and songs are not successes, and this is not an unfamiliar reality to the overwhelming majority of Hindi film aficionados. Therefore, it is at least expected within the boundaries of ‘The Dirty Picture’ that if the audience is to judge Silk for her sexualised roles and performances, it should also logically support judging the audiences spending their money and judging the industry making a profit.

6.c. The audience is helped to understand how Silk tries to turn the odds in her favour, but that in a male-dominated industry these remain against her

Early on in the film, Silk’s happiness at the time of her new found success should be short-lived as Suryakanth introduces Silk to the world of film criticism – and specifically to the gossip queen and film critic, Naila, that he has just spoken to candidly about his equation with Silk, to which she responds:

Naila: To portray men as saints, women have to be depicted as demons.

This follows a scene where Surya’s last heroine is shown to be playing his mother – and where the double standards faced by heroes and heroines in the industry. It is through this context we are to understand Silk and her choices, even if Silk doesn’t understand this yet.

Suryakanth’s attempt to emphasise she is only “dirt” to ensure Silk doesn’t get either too content or too ambitious is unsuccessful as she excited to see her photo in a magazine and that she is being talked about. Her happiness is finally over when Emran Hashmi’s character Abraham arrives and denounces Silk and her act and insists she cannot feature in his next film with Surya.

Selva replaces Abraham as the director upon Surya’s insistence when he refuses to consider Silk’s commercial appeal.

Silk is shown as curious about Abraham and what his “problem” with her is. He is of interest to her as he is the only man she has not yet been able to manipulate with her sexuality. She confidently informs him of her mantra:

Silk: Films need three things to sell: entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.

[winks]

And I am entertainment

Her eyes and smile show she enjoys the upper hand she has on him and the game they are playing, but also play to the audience directly in light of the previous point – the argument is that Silk is just providing what the audience deems to be entertainment from a woman in film. This act is based on making the best out of her options as a woman in a male-dominated industry, or taking lemons and making lemonade as the cliché goes.

6.d. Her fall from grace is shown dramatically, with her mistakes and flaws not left unhidden, but acted with an empathy for the character that reaches the viewer

A montage scene shows how Silk has spiralled into self-pity and despair, angry at small things, and dependent on alcohol and cigarettes. The wordless montage shows a frantic and anxious Silk, and her pain is clear. Her tearful, distraught screaming that follows as she looks for someone to blame and focus her anger at, shows her as highly vulnerable, lonely, and wanting to try to avoid feelings of self-hatred and shame. This is the appropriate moment for Silk’s breakdown.

During a scene where Silk goes to a director looking for work, he turns her down and asks if she needs money. She asks for 5 rupees only to his great surprise. This draws Reshma/Silk’s arc full circle as she reminisces about the 5 rupees from the casting director that rejected her that “brought her luck”. Given how jaded and worn out Silk seems at this point, this is hard to believe and Vidya’s breathy delivery is such to allow the viewer to understand that Silk isn’t even sure of this either, but is just longing for simpler times.

Her lowest point is shown when she is out of money, with no film offers, and she remembers a small-time director who offered her a part during more successful times. She gets in touch and arrives to start shooting, when she realises he is an adult film director. Vidya shows Silk as horrified, shocked and confused in one. She is immensely vulnerable in this moment, out of options but unwilling to work in adult films. Her dazed look takes a deep and long stare at the pile of hard cash he places in her hands whilst trying to convince her to go ahead with the film. She tries to drink her way into feeling comfortable, but her previous love of alcohol seems lost in this moment and she winces as she slugs the drink down quickly.

Thrown onto the bed and about the shoot the scene, a dazed and confused Silk is unable to muster the “heat” she turned on so comfortably given the nature of the film, when the studio is raided and she rushes to escape, nearly trampled on the way. She makes her way home but her despair is such that it leads to her tragic demise.

Throughout the film the audience is left with the feeling that Vidya has fully immersed herself in this character and has understood fully the mindset and circumstances that led to her tragic ending. By having a deep and genuine empathy for the character herself, combined with her ability to portray multiple emotions and establish the complexity of her character on screen, this empathy can easily be picked up and embraced by among the least astute of viewers of ‘The Dirty Picture’.

By sharing her understanding of her character with the audience, where she has slot her performance into an extensively envisioned world, Balan gifts cinema a truly powerhouse performance, entirely worthy of the acclaim it received. It is not only the film’s box office success that was game changing, but the lead acting performance within the film itself.

 

Neerja (2016)

I chose to start this blog with a piece on the movie “Neerja”. Why?

Well, Neerja is box office gold in 2016, one of the biggest movies released and the highest grossing with a female protagonist. It sees India’s “number 1 fashionista”, the star kid Sonam Kapoor, in a totally new avatar, producing almost certainly her finest performance to date. It received rave reviews and most likely will be a critical darling at awards shows rewarding the best films of 2016.

BUT actually I started with this film for none of these reasons.

Ultimately, I chose “Neerja” to begin a discussion of “heroine-oriented” cinema as it is a rendering of a true story of a real life heroine – an inspiration for women and men, boys and girls and for Indians, Pakistanis, Americans and Brits alike. Neerja is the story of the 22-year old flight attendant, Neerja Bhanot, who saved the lives of 359 people following an attempted hijacking on Pan Am Flight 73 on the 5th September 1986 at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on a stopover between Mumbai, Frankfurt and New York.

Portrayals of such heroines are important in all kinds of media, and if a reason was needed to justify why films with women protagonists are important, then it’s for reasons such as the need to tell stories such as Neerja’s. Critiques of “women-orientated” films (the same applies for literature and television) can often be that they are not serious and inherently superficial. This is a whole other discussion for another time. Nevertheless, it provides a context where it is particularly interesting to witness Sonam Kapoor, arguably one of the actresses in Bollywood today most commonly maligned in such a way, to lead this super-hit movie and for it to not only address a serious matter, but to demonstrate that stories of and about women are important to be heard.

SPOILERS ahead – if you don’t like them, I highly recommend you go watch the movie, and then come back. Trailer is below.

“Neerja” tells a compelling story, made gripping through strong performances and quality direction, despite most audience members likely being already aware of the outcome. Throughout the movie, Neerja is presented as a positive archetype for a number of different roles – and does a good job of inspiring without setting unobtainable expectations that depictions of “flawless” or “superhuman” women in media can sometimes create. I have described examples of some of these below.

Neerja as a Bollywood fan – like the audience herself

Neerja opens with scenes showing her personality, family life and portraying her as a “normal” young woman that the audience can relate to, in spite of her courageous and ultimately, tragically sacrificial actions that will follow. Her interest in Bollywood automatically connects her with the audience whilst her Rajesh Khanna fandom and declaration of his superiority as B-Town’s top hero over Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan mirrors the debates today between fans of the three Khans. That her mother is played by a frequent co-star of Khanna at the time, Shabana Azmi, perhaps only adds to this connection between Neerja herself and the Bollywood viewer.

Neerja as a “normal” young girl

The film passes the Bechdel test within the first 15 minutes, in a charming scene between the convincingly sleepy Neerja (played with the familiar youthful energy Sonam Kapoor brought to other heroine-oriented films such as Aisha and Khoobsurat, but also a seriousness and steeliness that has been less at the forefront of her work to date), and Neerja’s mother Rama (played by the iconic Shabana Azmi). The two discuss Neerja’s job and her mother’s worries related to her safety, which is laughed off by the pair with an intense foreshadowing of the tragic events to come.

Neerja as a girlfriend and a wife

Neerja is shown to have a relationship with Jaideep, who drives her to the airport, and reflects on her brief, and failed, arranged marriage. A flashback scene shows her husband berating her for ordering take-out and her mother for not having taught her to cook, accusing her of not understanding the meaning of “hard work”. It paints a rather unflattering picture of him and their marriage, especially in light of the heroics of the last few hours of Neerja’s life which will form the bulk of the film.

A brief scene presenting her “pious” vegetarianism in contrast to her husband’s aggressive meat eating is perhaps one of the most contrived moments in the movie, but it soon has greater significance as she is prevented from socialising or being presented publicly among his friends, being told to literally stay in the kitchen (!) and clean up after him.

Her isolation in Qatar and due to the break she is forced to take from working outside the home (in this case – her modelling career) is ruptured through a the supportive words of a progressive father who prioritises her well-being and happiness and teaches her to value strength and bravery over submissiveness and obedience.

This contrast of Neerja as a girlfriend, in a relationship she has chosen and supported in her work (presented positively) and as a wife in an arranged marriage where she is relegated to the kitchen (presented negatively) is a progressive view of the role of women, and given the truth in the story, legitimate, if somewhat simplified if taken as a broader message. However, if the message can be taken simply that women should be free to make their own choices, including in matters of marriage and career, and are not simply cooks and cleaners for their male spouses, this message is to be welcomed in the context of this movie celebrating life of, and commemorating the tragic heroism of, a truly brave woman.

Neerja emerges as a heroine

Rama is shown to have a mother’s instinct that something has happened, and when she is called about the hijacking by Harish, Neerja’s father, a journalist who hears about the situation through his work, they are both clearly extremely concerned but also try to maintain composure. The viewers can see this steeliness in Neerja’s reactions such as when the plane is first hijacked – her initial shock at the sound of shooting, her curious walk towards danger, her command to the rest of the cabin crew to close the door to prevent them entering (which is almost successful), and critically her alerting of the pilots of the fact that the plane has been hijacked, which critically gives them enough time to escape and prevents them from being forced to fly. Whilst a crucial act towards saving not only the pilots’ lives but also, ultimately that of the majority of the passengers, this act forces the young Neerja to take on the responsibility of becoming the most senior cabin crew member on a plane attacked by a terrorist group.

The alerting of the pilots and their escape also draws attention to Neerja and causes her to become somewhat of a target. She does not shy away from this however, volunteering to make an announcement on behalf of the hijackers in place of a traumatised colleague. They attempt to identify the radio controller on the plane, but Neerja discourages him from identifying himself in an effort to protect him.

Other key efforts to protect passengers that put her at greater risk include the hiding of American passports after an American passenger is murdered. This traumatic event sees Neerja barely avoid being shot, but after composing herself in the toilet, interspersed with a flashback to an even-more dejected looking Neerja during her brief marriage, when she sought a moment of solace in the bathroom. In the present timeline, she uses this moment of regaining composure to devise the plan to collect and hide the passports.

Neerja as de facto negotiator

Neerja’s compassion is seen extending even to the hijackers themselves, although she never condones their actions. These include from as early as her first announcement to the passengers on their behalf; to her plan to collect and hide the American passports under a rouse of giving out water, when she appeals to them by comparing their “duty” and “job” with her own towards the services of the passengers on the plane. She even attempts this after the auxiliary power expires and the hijackers panic, assuming they are about to be attacked. When this proves futile and they start shooting, Neerja rushes to open the emergency exit as quickly as possible and begin to evacuate the passengers and crew as quickly as possible.

Neerja as a survivor of abuse

Neerja’s bravery is framed as one that has either developed due to being a survivor of abuse, or an inherent part of her character that enabled her to escape her marriage.

The turning point where she is seen to realise her fighting instinct is shown in another flashback scene where Neerja is back in India with her family. One of her brother’s is notably supportive and her father Harish is particularly quiet and keen to avoid discussing why she is at home in India.

Her mother Rama is shown as less supportive and rather encourages Neerja to stick with the marriage, and persist in her attempts to adapt, somewhat insensitively dismissing her unhappiness as a burden that all married women need to take on. Rama’s stance turns however once Neerja reveals letters written by her husband to Harish, her father, detailing his dowry-related complaints, and recalling his psychological and even physical abuse towards her, and she appears to recognise this is not an acceptable situation. Sonam gives a convincing delivery whilst reading the letters, with the summary conclusion that “she is of no use to me” encapsulating how Neerja has been disparaged through a form of abuse and that intends to imply that therefore “she is of no use [whatsoever]”. Ultimately however, this narrative is not just challenged for its offensiveness, but in light of Neerja’s heroism, also absurd to even suggest.

This scene is also important as it shows that it is often other women who justify or seek to normalise abuse – and commonly in the name of love and support of a close family member. This means that the fact that Neerja’s insistence on escaping her life in Qatar and returning to India, and indirectly asserting her own worth and value in spite of being “of no use”, is ultimately heard and acknowledged by her family, especially her mother, all the more important. This serves as an assertion that the happiness of ALL women is important and ALL women have use and value.

Neerja as the romantic heroine

Curiously, although perhaps unsurprisingly, Neerja is also painted as a romantic heroine within the movie. A common trope of Hindi cinema, particularly of the last 20 years, is the romanticisation of “love marriage” for an audience that still overwhelmingly (although in decreasing frequency in some urban areas) continues to practice arranged marriage as the primary establishment of a relationship between romantic partners. However, romance developing after marriage is rare enough to be be an outlier among the majority of Hindi films released in recent years (some examples of such outliers that spring to mind would be Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Namastey London, Rab Na Bana Di Jodi, and most recently, Dum Laga Ke Haisha).

Given the facts around Neerja’s failed arranged marriage, the idealisation of a romantic relationship established prior to marriage, as she has with Jaideep, is perhaps unspectacular. What is more interesting in this regard is the prominence and significance this is given within the movie, especially giving the thriller aspect of the hijack and the inspiration of her heroics. This trope is used predominantly to emphasise loss and tragedy, with Neerja’s acceptance of her role as the romantic heroine coming at a point where she appears to have accepted her likely demise – she opens the birthday letter from Jaideep prematurely as she recognises she may not be able to wait until her birthday. Her tears of joy are accompanied by a genuine pain that she is unable to fulfil the proposal written within. Neerja’s last smile however is shown whilst in reflecting on this letter and the love it represents.

Jaideep, the supportive and loving husband that can never be, meanwhile, is seen awaiting news whilst sitting in front of a billboard with Neerja as a model. That Neerja is literally modelling bridal gear is a far from subtle nod to the fact that Neerja is being cast as the ultimate bride.

Neerja as Mother India

Neerja’s final actions, also demonstrated in a range of moments throughout the film portray her as a protector of children. She is ultimately shot after returning the line of fire in order to protect and evacuate a group of unaccompanied young children, acting as a human shield. Her last words are to a young boy she acts as a pseudo-mother figure to.

Neerja’s role as an archetypal mother figure plays into a subversion of one of the most famous of all “heroine-oriented” Hindi films, namely, “Mother India”. In this subverted ending however, our “mother to society” self-sacrifices literally, and can only protect “her” children, by being shot herself instead of acting as the shooter.

Neerja’s mother herself has a speech at the end of the movie, reflecting on her loss and on Neerja’s life. This is obviously partially to make best use of a powerhouse acting legend such as Shabana Azmi. But in the context of the film it also works to emphasise Neerja not just as a heroine, but also a more human figure – a daughter, a sister, a fiancé and a friend.

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