Silk Smitha: Despised and loved in equal measure, she is still an enigma - Hindustan Times
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Silk Smitha biopic: Despised and loved in equal measure, this South sex symbol is still an enigma

Jan 15, 2024 02:31 PM IST

Little is known in the northern side of India about the rave that was Silk Smitha. Bold and beautiful, she was all that filmmakers wanted for their films.

On December 2, 2023, Silk Smitha’s 63rd birthday, a Tamil biopic, starring actor Chandrika Ravi in the lead role and to be directed by Jayaram Sankaran, was announced. Titled Silk Smitha – The Untold Story, the biopic is set to delve into her life like never before. The siren allegedly died by suicide on September 23, 1996, but even after 27 years, her life story continues to enthral filmmakers and the Tamil audience. Silk Smitha – The Untold Story sees the collaboration of the producer, SB Vijay, with Smitha’s brother Naga Vara Prasad, to bring her story to the audience. (Also read: Silk Smitha’s birth anniversary: Looking back at when she wanted to be a character actor like Savitri)

Silk Smitha is one of the most enigmatic figures in the world of entertainment.
Silk Smitha is one of the most enigmatic figures in the world of entertainment.

Ask director Jayaram Sankaran why he decided to make a film on her and he replies, “I became part of the team that was working on her film. The story created a need for it to be told. Silk Smitha was a rebel, a fighter in an industry and society which was patriarchal; there was harsh economical and sexual politics and she had to bear the brunt of it because of who she was. All of this creates a good and bold character to explore – it has all the relevant topics people can appreciate and understand better in today’s times. The other reason is the associations made with the name Silk Smitha have often been negative, which was not the reality of her life. No one explored her personality, character, tried to understand her mental health or life.”

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Cult status

Even today, her life – on and off screen – remains a mystery which continuously draws filmmakers like a moth to a flame. Hindi film director Milan Luthria’s 2011 film, The Dirty Picture starring Vidya Balan, was based on Silk Smitha’s life. Interestingly, Luthria had met the South sex symbol when he was assistant director to Mahesh Bhatt and had worked with her in Naraaz (1994). A web series was announced a few years ago by Kaala director Pa Ranjith and now, it is Sankaran’s film that is making headlines.

Most popular during the 80s and 90s, Silk Smitha has appeared in over 300 films (Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Kannada) with south producers and stars waiting for her dates for their films. Trade analyst Sreedhar Pillai, who covers Tamil cinema extensively, strongly reiterates that she had the ‘oomph factor’ that no other actress had at the time. “She was literally a nobody who came from Eluru in Andhra Pradesh and attained cult status because of her dance numbers. At the time, Hindi cinema had Helen and Silk Smitha became her equivalent in the south. Vandichakkaram (1980) catapulted her and her dance number became a must in nearly every film. She captured the audience’s imagination like no one had. In those times, films had a heroine, played by mainstream stars, and a vamp, which Silk Smitha was superb at. Today, there is no such template– actresses themselves play different kinds of roles. Her personal life was also very mysterious which I think people were enamoured by,” explains Sreedhar Pillai.

Some call her the Marilyn Monroe of South India thanks to the raw sexuality she exuded and how she used her body effectively to entice the masses. Smitha, who had made several soft-porn films in Malayalam, knew what men lusted after and excelled in bold, arrogant roles that required her to expose her body. Though she was initially compelled to face the camera due to her economic and social situation, she learnt how to seduce the camera and the male audience with every film of hers. The film industry was male-dominated and not easy for a woman to survive, let alone succeed in but Smitha cemented a place for herself through her style of cinema and attained cult status.

The sexy ‘glamour girl’

However, Silk Smitha’s life was filled with struggles and hardships, and despite all the fame and success she achieved, one could not say she was truly happy and fulfilled, especially in her personal life. People find this fascinating even now along with the fact that she was a village girl from Anhdra Pradesh who became a big ‘star’ to reckon with, akin to Rajinikanth’s story. “Among all the ‘glamour girls’, she will always remain the benchmark. In the 80s and 90s, she ruled cinema. Silk Smitha was an enigma and no one could really understand her. She had a unique personality – she had a look which was not just glamorous but she had powerful eyes. Director Balu Mahendra shot her with such beautiful cinematography in Moonram Pirai that gave her such a fabulous reach. She had the look of a ‘kanavu kanni’ (dream girl) – Rajakumari had the same attraction. From Jayamalini to Anuradha to Disco Shanti – they didn’t have such attractive eyes who made a difference to the audience. Every hero wanted to act with her because of her personality and the way she carried herself. So, it’s a combination of factors as to why she remains an enigma even today,” explains well-known Tamil producer G Dhananjayan.

While Smitha’s role might have been a cameo or just an item song (as seen in many films), the size of her image on the film’s poster would be made extremely prominent by the producers to lure the audience. “To be honest, she catered to the secret fantasies and desires of the mass audience. There was a high-level of double standards that existed too – by the day you had to act like you despised the woman but secretly within you devoured her presence. Smitha was openly able to challenge this and made it possible for people to come out with their fantasies and show it by thronging to the theatres just to have a glimpse of her. She was actually a torch-bearer for the heroines of today – today’s heroines have moulded themselves to play character-driven roles as well as be that hot sensual object on screen. In those times, it was Silk Smitha who created this slot and filled it up herself. I think that’s why she became such a big sex symbol at that time,” emphasizes Sankaran.

Despite the tragic end, Silk Smitha served as a beacon of hope for many women who came into the film industry from a non-film background. In 2018, when it was announced that Bollywood actor Richa Chadha would play Malayalam sex siren Shakeela in an upcoming film, she said, “Silk Smitha was an iconic name in the 90s whose popularity knew no bounds. She created a genre in cinema which didn’t exist and empowered many women with her unapologetic choices.”

This is perhaps why Silk Smitha continues to attract filmmakers and the audience alike – the desire to decode a highly successful actress who seemed confident yet vulnerable, popular yet lonely, desirable yet surrounded by hate, and cutting through patriarchy but never given her due.

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