This essay is part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. Each day one Indian woman is profiled for the whole of March 2017.
In a society which looks at female sexuality in relation with voyeuristic heterosexual male desires, a woman’s ease in her own skin was a revolt in itself. Silk Smitha’s confident ownership of her sexuality was a blow to the patriarchal film industry which had both created her highly sexualized image but had also mocked and insulted her by treating her a mere object. She was a fearless woman who broke the mould and was comfortable in her body. She accepted that if she was portrayed and perceived as a sexual object, she would make that very aspect of her identity her biggest forte. If she was all about body, she would challenge the patriarchy by owning her body and her sexuality.
Silk Smitha was born Vijayalakshmi in the year 1960, in a small town of Eluru, Andhra Pradesh. She was perceived to be very attractive, which is why her parents, owing to inherent sexism, married her off at a very young age. The consequent suffocation which the marriage brought to her owing to the ill-treatment by her husband made her break all ties and run away to Chennai, where she started living with her aunt.
Silk Smitha challenged patriarchy by owning her body and her sexuality.
Silk Smitha worked as a make-up artiste and then went on to bag smaller roles in Malyalam films. She received critical acclaims for her role in Bharati Raja’s Alaigal Oyvathillai and was appreciated for her performance in Moonram Pirai. She went on to prove herself as an actor by working with new wave Tamil filmmakers like Bharathi Raja and Balu Mahendra. But it was Vinu Chakravarty’s Vandi Chakram, which went on to become a huge hit, and gave her the name “Silk”, which became her screen name and her brand. Having established herself as an actor, Smitha also dabbled in film production during the mid-1990s.
Known as a person who steered the course of her own life, she took the bold step of moving in with an already married doctor. At the time, such a move by a female actor would spin a lot of rumours in the gossip-mills of tabloids, but she remained free and bold in her choices throughout.
In the year 1996, when she was 35, Silk Smitha decided to end her life. There were rumours of ill-treatment by producers and co-actors, loneliness and alcoholism which were purported to have led her to take the drastic step. The insensitivity and indifference with which her suicide was discussed questioned not only the moral consciousness of the society, but also brought forth the cruelty of sexism and male-chauvinism that ran in the film industry.
Silk Smitha’s sexuality didn’t conform to the stereotypes prevalent in mainstream discourse. She exuded sensuality, confidence, ambition and talent, but her life’s biggest tragedy came down to her being trapped in a world of hypocrisy and male imaginations. However, she continued to remain unapologetic about her body even when she was being shunned for the same.
The 1980s in the Tamil film industry was when films were more about soft pornography catering to the male gaze. It was also the time when women were treated merely as props, and ‘belonged’ to the producer/director because it was the only way in which they could survive and build their identity in association with them. Silk Smitha, however, jostled between two identities – one which she was forced to adopt, which was that of a sexual object – and another identity that she chose and was comfortable with, which embodied a raw sexual energy, for which she was shunned and isolated.
The binaries of “chaste housewives” VS. “Seductive vamps” in film were sorted on the caste of the female actors.
This was also the period when off-screen roles played by women were compartmentalized into binaries of the “virtuous, chaste housewife” and the “dirty, seductive vamps”. These binaries were essentially based on the caste of the female actors. Lower-caste women actors played the role of vamps which led to their sexualization as “liberated and sexually autonomous women.” Silk Smitha’s image in the South Indian film industry was that of a vamp, because her “disobedient” body was deviant from the expected chastity of upper-caste-female body. She occupied a cinematic space where vamps were portrayed as “characterless” and “non-upper-caste-women”. She would blaze the screen in pumped-up dance numbers, whereas the “virtuous woman” would be sealed within the household without any agency.
But despite her defiant attempts at autonomy, Smitha’s real life was riven with oppression from within the film industry. The raw sensuality she exhibited was the cultural product of patriarchal power, and it never really translated into real power and autonomy in her daily life. This marginalization of her very identity could be one of the factors that led to her suicide.
A closer look at Silk Smitha’s life also reveals the harsh reality of sexual regulation of the Dalit-Bahujan woman, who is purported to be more sexually liberated and have an agency of her own. However, in reality, even the sexual liberation granted to them is within the framework of patriarchy, which was exactly the problem with the celluloid image of Silk Smitha.
All of this connects with the nature of sexual violence that is played over the bodies of the lower-caste women. Their straitjacketing into the mould of “immorality” and “loose character” reinforces the idea that sexual endeavours towards them are a given and they are always sexually available, thereby legitimizing sexual violence against them. These socio-cultural reflections have always formed the crux of how women are portrayed over the celluloid, and the reason behind the image of Silk Smitha’s vamp image stands firmly as the evidence for the same.
A closer look at Silk Smitha’s life reveals the reality of sexual regulation of the Dalit woman.
Silk Smitha had a strong presence; she sensationalized the screen with dance numbers meant only for titillation. However, her presence was conveniently constructed to be seen as “loose and immoral”, by pitting her against virtuous and chaste roles of upper-caste female actors. A closer look at her off-screen persona also reveals another hidden politics behind such construction – she was dark-skinned. In an industry where fair skin is the only way in which beauty is given its credibility, her dark skin was deliberately highlighted with the help of make-up, camera angles and lightening, in order to reinforce the idea that since she belonged to the lower caste/class, she was sexually available and therefore ought to have been looked down upon, or “used and thrown.”
Thus, her dark-skinned, sexually available image was the reflection of how society looks at the Dalit-Bahujan women who are “meant for male sexual gratification” and are never “meant for commitment”, which is basically only reserved for the upper caste virtuous female body.
The film, “The Dirty Picture”, which is loosely based on the life of Silk Smitha, gives an overview of the sexism within the film industry and women being at the receiving ends of the same, and makes it a point to pull out the gaze of Vidya Balan towards the camera with sexual directness. However, it nonetheless misses out on the aspect that her rise and fall also had a close association with her being a woman from lower castes. In the process, the film somehow ignores the position in the way lower-caste women have been typecasted and institutionalized to be looked as morally loose, and are then pitted against the “sexually regulated, naïve and morally superior” upper-caste women, for whom the question of desire never arises.
This also brings to light the fact that ultimately, the power still lies in the hands of patriarchy. Whether it is the construction of the binary between the sexually submissive upper-caste women and the sexually loose lower-caste women, real agency always lies in the hands of patriarchal power relations. The exploitation of Dalit-Bahujan women (mental, physical and sexual) is seen as something which is natural, since they are viewed as destined to be having these problems. This extremely toxic mindset not only promotes the oppression of women, regardless of their caste or class, but also gives a lopsided perspective over the depravity of the lower-caste women. It sees them as someone having sexual liberation but not as victims of continuous oppression. This could be the possible crux of the problem which Silk Smitha faced, all her life.
Smitha’s story had always been more than what meets the eye. Her life, and even death, was more about people wanting to know why she did what she did rather than being empathetic about the sorry state of the kind of industry she fought and survived over the years.