Thesping powerhouse Vidya Balan goes as far as Bollywood conventions will allow in “The Dirty Picture,” which traces the rise and fall of a 1980s Indian film goddess. Equal parts biopic, affectionate retro satire and melodrama (natch), this latest effort by helmer Milan Luthria (“Once Upon a Time in Mumbai”) succeeds on Balan’s erotic heat and acting chops. Pic has caused a stir on the subcontinent due to its racy elements and fictionalization of the life of South Indian sensation Silk Smitha, and has cumed $13.9 million to date, with $1.4 million brought in by non-resident Indian auds.
Fleeing from an arranged marriage, pretty village girl Reshma (Balan) takes a job in a teahouse; catching the eyes of customers, she quickly learns the score but won’t let any man stand in the way of her dream of becoming an actress.
Condensing the arc of Smitha’s career, Reshma begs and pushes her way into a dancing role in a film. Vamping it up with a whip, she catches the attention of the cameraman, but arty helmer Abraham (Emraan Hashmi, wooden) edits out her scene. When the film flops, lascivious producer Selva Ganesh (Rajesh Sharma) restores the missing reel and rightly predicts the unknown actress will be a sensation when he re-releases the movie in India’s provinces. Abraham’s career plummets, but occasional voiceover commentary by the disgraced helmer provides a clue that his role ain’t over.
Ganesh finds Reshma, renames her Silk and casts her as the love interest in his next film opposite revered movie idol Surya (vet thesp Naseeruddin Shah); with a mix of desire and ambition, the novice thesp soon becomes the superstar’s shameless mistress. Pic’s second half amps up the emotional complications as Surya tries to protect his marriage, while Silk retaliates by initiating an affair with her lover’s naive but rich screenwriter brother, Ramakant (Tusshar Kapoor).
Director Luthria manages to imbue Rajat Arora’s melodramatic screenplay with gravitas even as he winks at the satiny excesses of India’s 1980s film industry. “The Dirty Picture” flounders in its final reels as it rushes toward its preordained tragic conclusion and Hashimi’s stodgy turn as director Abraham comes to the fore.
On the upside, Balan exhibits energy and voluptuous charms in an ace perf; subject was no Twiggy, but Balan’s Mae West-style shenanigans make Silk’s erotic appeal convincing, especially in a joyous scene in which her public posturing causes a Mumbai traffic jam. Balancing malevolence, power and ludicrousness, Shah is delightful as the perennial film idol Surya, with his pencil-thin moustache and inky hair that just stops short of dripping black dye. Anju Mahendroo successfully channels Addison DeWitt in In the subsidiary role of a powerful distaff film critic.
Lensing by Bobby Singh keeps things glossy and complements Priya Suhas’ glittering production design. Soundtrack by Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani abounds with Boney M inflections that recall India’s disco era.