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'Let them think I am not wearing anything'

Last updated on: December 2, 2011 15:44 IST

'Let them think I am not wearing anything'

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Arthur J Pais in New York

Executing an erotic dance with sheer silk stockings was not a big thing for Silk Smitha, who made item songs in Tamil and Telugu films a bankable factor in the 1970s and the first half of 1980s.

But once the director okayed the shot, and she covered her plunging neckline with a shawl waiting for the next shot; she found herself in sheer agony. "I feel like there are X-ray eyes everywhere," I remember her saying ruefully. "I will do what my role requires, and people may not even know I am wearing these stockings. Let them think I am not wearing anything, but in between the shots, I want my privacy."

Walking from the sound stage to her make up room often took 10 minutes. "But I feel it is like an hour," she once said. "I want to slap all these men and tell them, you want to see more of me, wait till the film comes out, buy the ticket and see my body."


Image: Silk Smitha

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'Silk Smitha can bring back a dead man to life'

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Her biggest hit was the Tamil film Moondram Pirai, starring Sridevi and Kamal Haasan, directed by Balu Mahendra in 1982. Though as a sexually frustrated wife of a school headmaster, Smitha had to do some acting, it was her erotic song and dance item that was insanely popular.

Sridevi received many awards for her non-glamorous role in the film, but it was Smitha's appeal that brought many to the theatres repeatedly. A journalist once told me, "Silk Smitha can bring back a dead man to life."

N C Sippy, known for producing films like Anand, remade Moondram Pirai in Hindi. Though the Hindi remake, Sadma, had the same cast including Haasan, it was a box office dud. Even Silk Smitha's erotic dance could not captivate the Hindi audiences.


Image: A scene from Moondram Pirai

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Silk was married off before she turned 16

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Like many of the actresses who made a small fortune in negative roles and item numbers in the South, Smitha who was born as Vijayalakshmi in a small Andhra Pradesh town called Elluru. She came from a poor family and was married off reportedly before she was 16.

Despite her limited education (just about fourth grade, though later she would learn English in Chennai), she rebelled against an abusive marriage and ran away to Chennai to her aunt.

She had a vague idea she wanted to be in films. Though she started her career with Malayalam films with the name Smitha, it was the 1979 Tamil film Vandi Chakram, which made her famous. It also gave her the sobriquet Silk after the bar girl character she played in the film.


Image: Silk Smitha

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'I could shoot her scenes with just focusing on her eyes'

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Smitha's tragic life is the inspiration for the much-discussed film The Dirty Picture but people who knew her well and were aware of the disappointments she suffered due to failed love affairs and her inability to be a recognized actress, did not expect her to kill herself.

She was among half a dozen actresses who oozed sex in low budget Tamil and Telugu films, though unlike many of them she also danced in big budget films.

Silk was dark with hypnotizing eyes. "I could shoot her scenes with just focusing on her eyes," cinematographer and director Balu Mahendra said during the shooting of Sadma. "But audiences want much more than her eyes, her smile and her acting."


Image: Silk Smitha

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'When Sharmila Tagore shows off her body, people are not shocked'

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Actors like Jayamalini, Jyothilakshmi and Rathi Devi (not to be confused with Rathi Agnihotri who was making a name for herself in big budget Tamil and Hindi films) provided the 80's films with an extra oomph and certain amount of box office guarantee.

These included Indian imitations of Hollywood Westerns, and some mythological films, which were popular with students during morning shows, and older men in the late shows. It was common knowledge that midnight shows in smaller towns, in addition to the erotic dances and bosom flashing scenes by the likes of Jayamalini, also showed crudely shot explicit sex scenes.

Films featuring Silk Smitha found faithful non-southern audiences too, who would flock to theatres like Aurora in Mumbai, which showed Tamil and Malayalam films at 8.30 in the mornings on the weekends. Some critics called Smitha the best soft porno actress India had produced.

She never apologized for doing those sexy roles but once she said to me, "When Sharmila Tagore shows off her body in Evening in Paris or Saira Banu wears revealing clothes in films like Nehle Pe Dehla, people are not shocked but why call someone like me names"


Image: Sharmila Tagore in Evening in Paris

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The Indian Censor Board would cut quite a bit of the gyrating scenes

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The Indian Censor Board would cut quite a bit of the dancing and gyrating scenes from the films featuring Smitha and other 'sex bombs' but many erotic shots remained.

At the screening of the Malayalam film Pappati starring Rathi Devi, a member of the censor board, objected to a scene in which the actress is milking a cow, while the camera pans on her barely-concealed bosom.

The review went on and on, until producer R K Shanmugham confronted the censor board member asking if he should cover the cow's teats. The scene was allowed.

Despite the notoriety and wide publicity Rathi Devi received, Pappati was a modest success at the box office, and her career did not fly.


Image: Silk Smitha

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'I am not ashamed of doing those films'

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Silk Smitha appeared in over 200 films in about a decade, and whether she played a vamp or a housewife she got to share the screen with some of the biggest artists in the South including Sivaji Ganesan, Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan. She was just 36 when she died in 1996. It is believed that she had become a depressive alcoholic and could not produce a film she badly wanted to do.

In the decade preceding her death, at least four well-known artists in the South including the national award winner Shobha killed themselves, unhappy over their relationships.

They were younger than Smitha and she had often said in private conversations that life was sacred and people had no right to end it. Apparently she was driven to despair and changed her mind.

"I want to show everyone that there has always been an artist hiding in me," she had said in an interview. "Though I have acted in a lot of character roles and in devotional and family films, people still want to see me as a vamp. I am not ashamed of doing those films. They got me money and I was able to put behind my miserable marriage but did they really give me happiness? Nearly 16 years in the industry and I really don't know what happiness means."


Image: Silk Smitha

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'Add a Silk Smitha song and dance, and suddenly the film would become viable'

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Her films saved many producers who were on the verge of bankruptcy because distributors were not touching them. "But add a Silk Smitha song and dance, suddenly the film would become viable," a producer, whose film was lying unsold for many months, told me. It had a good cast but the distributors were not happy with it.

"I did not make money out of the film but it did good business in the rural areas, and I was able to cut down my losses," he said.

Many years after her death, when newcomers would approach a producer or director and plainly tell him that they were prepared to do erotic scenes in a film, the response quite often was: 'Can you do better than Silk?'


Image: Silk Smitha

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