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April 04, 1997


Chronicle of a death foretold

K P Sunil

Silk Smitha in SadmaAccept this girl called Marilyn Monroe throughout the world, though that was not her name (but you know her real name was that of the orphan raped at nine, the shop girl who tried to kill herself when aged just sixteen), who now goes into your presence without make up, without her press agent, without her photographs or signing autographs, lonely as an astronaut facing the darkness of outer space...

Replace the name 'Marilyn Monroe' with 'Silk Smitha' and there, in a nutshell, you have the story of yet another South Indian actress who opted for the eternal darkness of the Great Beyond in preference to a heady affair with glitter and razzamatazz.

On the morning of September 23 Smitha, uncrowned queen of glamour on the South Indian screen, was found dead in her home in Saligramam, Madras's tinseltown, hanging by a rope from the ceiling fan in her bedroom.

A suicide note, handwritten in Telugu, intimated that she was frustrated with repeated failures in life and hence was taking the extreme step.

The Madras city police have registered a case of unnatural death and have started investigations to ascertain the exact cause of death. For, given the glamour artiste's lifestyle, the chances of foul play cannot be entirely ruled out.

Born on December 2, 1960 in the hamlet of Elluru near Rajamundry in Andhra Pradesh and christened Vijayalakshmi, Smitha studied up to the 4th standard before dropping out due to poverty.

Starstruck right from early childhood, her aim in life was to do something connected to films - and so it was but natural that she found herself in Kodambakkam, South India's Hollywood. Her first job was as 'touch-up' girl to a two bit starlet.

The ambitious teenager soon decided she was made for better things than applying a wet cloth to madam's cheeks, and quickly befriended the starlet's paramour, who in turn launched her in the industry as an aspiring starlet with a new name - Smitha.

Her dark complexion, seductively pouting lips and sultry eyes proved her major assets and gave her a first break in the Malayalam film, Inaye Thedi, in 1979.

Smitha got her big break in 1980, when she was taken for a major role in the Tamil film Vandi Chakkram - and in this, for the first time, Smitha revelled in what was to become her trademark as she revealed as much of her voluptuous figure as the censors would permit, and then some.

In this film, she was referred to as 'Silk', her peformance was the most talked about aspect of the box office hit, and from that point on she became 'Silk Smitha'.

In the next three years Silk acted in more than 200 films, mostly appearing in skimpy dresses doing sizzling dance numbers. Her popularity with the masses was such that distributors insisted that she be featured in a film before they would pick it up for distribution in their territories. In fact, during this period several completed films remained in the cans while the producer and director waited for Silk to give dates for a dance number. And on some occasions, completed films that had been shelved for want of distributors quickly added a couple of Silk dances and went on to become silver jubilee hits.

Smitha, in this phase, could name her price and get it too. Charging as much as Rs 50,000 per dance sequence, she did two, sometimes three, dances a day for different producers and earned more than most leading heroines of the time. And the ultimate in cashing in happened when a film titled Silk, Silk, Silk hit the marquee, with Smitha in a triple role!

Though that frenetic pace of work was too hectic to last, Smitha ended up appearing in over 500 films in less than ten years of her entry into the industry, and in the process appeared in dances opposite male stars ranging from Sivaji Ganesan to Rajnikanth to Kamal Hasan to Chiranjeevi, and in landmark films such as Balu Mahendra's Moonram Pirai (Sadma, in Hindi) and Bharathi Raja's Alaigal Oivathillai.

For the unlettered Smitha with her rural upbringing, success proved too heady a drug. Being untrained in the nuances of dancing, she was the choreographer's nightmare. Her abrasive interludes with co-stars, directors and filmmakers did not win her many friends either. And so, when her popularity began to wane after almost a decade at the top and when a new breed of heroines took over who were willing to shed their clothes at the drop of a clapper board, Silk Smitha got slowly, but inevitably, sidelined.

Industry sources aver that during this period, her live-in boyfriend, who had planned her career advancement from scratch, lured her into producing films to ensure that the lolly kept rolling in. Two flops later, Smitha was reportedly in the red to the tune of around Rs 20 million, and her third production remained incomplete for want of funds.

The fear of penury hit Smitha particularly hard, accustomed as she was to the luxurious lifestyle that attended her star status. Smitha did get the occasional film offer - in fact, her last appearance is in the film Subhash, which was released only a couple of days before her death - but nothing near enough to ensure that she could maintain her previous lifestyle.

Was Smitha's death a case of suicide? Or is there more to it than meets the eye? Will the true facts of her life and death ever come out? These are questions for which answers are not readily available.

The suicide note is there. As indeed is every possible indication that Smitha did, in fact, take her own life by hanging.

'Death by hanging' is also the verdict of the preliminary post-mortem report.

And yet the Madras police appear reluctant to accept the evidence at face value. On Thursday, the police thus directed the examining doctors to send certain parts of Smitha's viscera for advanced forensic testing, in a bid to determine the presence, of otherwise, of poison.

Police sources indicate that one angle they are pursuing is the possibility that Smitha could have been fed some soporific substance (interestingly, the post-mortem report on the state of Smitha's stomach revealed the presence of large amounts of chocolate and bananas, but no solid food) and then, when in a comatose state, hung to death in a manner that mimics suicide.

This, however, is just one of many theories being investigated. For now, all that the officials will say, on record, is that "investigations are on, and it is premature to say anything more at this stage".

For the moment, then, suffice to say that Smitha joins a distinguished roster of southside heroines - Savithri, Shobha, Prema, Lakshmishri, Jayalakshmi, Vijayasri, Acharo Chitra, Kalpana, Kannada Manjula, Divya Bharathi, two-time Urvashi award winner Shobha and others - who have met premature ends, in unnatural circumstances.