It’s been twenty years since Silk Smitha died. When she was alive, Smitha did not get much respect from the film industry or the public. But reams have been written about her since her death.
From lauding her acting abilities in “Alaigal Oivathillai” to singing paeans about her beauty and brand of seduction, Smitha’s metamorphosis from shunned vamp to tragic queen in the public memory says a lot about how audiences have changed their approach to women in cinema.
Smitha worked primarily in South Indian films, mostly Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. While the South Indian film industries are still male-dominated and exploitative, the conversation today focuses more on what it means to be a female actor in such an environment, and goes beyond the usual voyeuristic gossip about casting couches.
The majority of films that are churned out, especially in Tamil and Telugu, continue to objectify women and thrust them in blink-and-miss roles but this issue no longer escapes criticism or analysis.
Smitha was a good actor and in many of her films, she had more to do than just a dance number. But she never managed to reinvent herself as a heroine or “character” artist. Disco Shanti, Smitha’s contemporary and another actor who performed erotic roles, tried her luck as the heroine in many films before settling for the “item girl” tag.
The Madonna-whore duality was much stronger back in the 1970s and 1980s in South Indian films than it is now: a female actor was either typecast as a virtuous woman or as the vamp, and there was no going back and forth. Ramya Krishnan, who entered films in the early eighties, is perhaps one of the few women actors from those times who has managed to play a wide range of roles, from the seductive other woman to an enraged goddess, and continues to surprise us with her role selection.
Things have changed slowly over the years. Admittedly, perhaps not from one end of the spectrum to the other. But it has become more acceptable for a woman actor to explore her versatility when the opportunity presents itself.
For instance, Anushka Shetty is equally comfortable playing a sex worker or a cross-dressing queen, a “glamour doll” or an overweight young woman. Others like Trisha and Nayantara, who have made their careers in the masala film genre, take on performance-oriented roles whenever they get a chance.
As for “item” songs, A-listers are willing to wear racy clothes and dance to raunchy numbers that were restricted to the “bad girls” of the industry earlier. Take Kajal Aggarwal who routinely plays the “innocent” girl-next-door – her most recent outing was an item number replete with double entendres in “Janatha Garage”.
Madhuri Dixit is credited with having started the “respectable” item girl trend in Bollywood with “Tezaab”, which subsequently filtered down to the South over the years. Hence, though a Mumtaz or a Mumaith Khan may enjoy their time in the sun for a while, they are not really as necessary as Silk Smitha and other “nautch” girls were to sell a film in their era. The "vamp" these days appears as the villain's arm candy and disappears without creating much of a flutter.
Further, with the internet and easy accessibility to sexually explicit content, it is unlikely that a film can ride on the popularity of one “dirty” song alone, however scandalous.
There are two ways of looking at this: on the one hand, it is worth celebrating the fact that female actors can play diverse roles without getting stuck in the “image” trap but on the other, it is saddening that the male gaze has only grown stronger and more intrusive with the years. It is also worth asking how many of these female actors would perform “item” numbers if more substantial roles came their way or if the directors and producers (mostly male) who rule the industry did not lay it down as a condition for them to survive.
Silk Smitha lived at a time when things were black and white. You were either the good woman or the bad on screen. If she had been a heroine in the new millennium, she may have enjoyed more respect and acceptance from people in the industry and outside of it for what she did. But though this is a welcome change, it is only a silver lining to what is still a grey cloud.