Based on the real life exploits of South Indian film actress Vijayalakshmi, who took the screen name of Silk Smitha, Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture sees Vidya Balan dance her way through an uneven look at the female film star in the context of the Indian film industry. Although Vidya Balan is perfectly cast and carries the film with what is surely one of the highlights performances of the year, her sincerity is undermined somewhat by an overwrought screenplay, messy narrative and underwhelming directing. The central idea is undoubtedly fascinating, that of the Indian film actress who is eroticised and exploited for her sexuality by film producers. Such exploitation taps into Laura Mulvey’s feminist proposition that women are sexualised by the camera for the pleasure of the male spectator. The major problem with this film is the way in which the narrative disintegrates and loses its focus, glancing over the demise of Silk and reducing much of the drama to montage. Although Vidya Balan and Naseeruddin Shah are perfectly cast, both Tushar Kapoor and Emran Hashmi lack both the acting finesse and weight to carry off their roles. Emran Hashmi is seriously mis-cast as the disgruntled director who is critical of cinema’s increasingly superficial obsessions with using sex as means of titillating audiences. The Dirty Picture is a mainstream musical melodrama, which means obvious artistic compromises have been made at the expense of the film’s more interesting ideological aspects. The analysis the film presents of the state of Indian cinema in the 1980s and even today is not revolutionary or revelatory in any way – that men and patriarchy dictates the exploitation of women while remaining more or less immune from the problems of aging, career longevity and success is nothing new and most likely still exists today. Nevertheless, Vidya Balan’s magnetic screen presence shapes and controls the narrative and the strong feminist agenda, no doubt a manifestation of Ekta Kapoor’s interest in female narratives as demonstrated by her television work, makes a refreshing alternative to the way in which most films are still male dominated. Overall, there are some imaginative touches throughout including some wonderful tributes to South Indian cinema and Vidya Balan proves yet again she is one of the few actresses who has exceptional range and grace.
The multi protagonist narrative film has emerged as a favourite amongst the multiplex crowd in India and with Shor in the City we find a continuation of the familiar cocktail of crime, gangsters and expletives witnessed before in contemporary films such as Sankat City, Johnny Gaddaar and Kaminey. (See The Guardian Newspapers article on the Multiplex Indian film published last week) Collectively these films constitute a new genre of Indian cinema that one could argue extends from the Mumbai Noir lexicon. However, Mumbai Noir has mutated somewhat aesthetically (not thematically though) into the stylised multi protagonist urban crime film that adopts a portmanteau narrative structure involving chapters, colourful characters, kinetic editing, visceral camera style and a self reflexive edginess. With the rise of the Multiplex film and niche cinema the Bombay film industry has seen a flowering of new production companies who are supposedly willing to take a risk on more edgier, daring and controversial subject matter. In this instance Balaji Motion Pictures (run by Ekta Kapoor and Shobha Kapoor) backed Shor in the City and has already proven itself commercially as a multiplex player with recent films such as Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and Love, Sex Aur Dhokha. I’m not sure to what extent this claim holds any validity when one looks closely at films such as Shor in the City. Essentially the appeal of these films is constructed around a level of dark humour that is filtered through a discourse of intertexuality. Such a postmodern approach not only underlines the technical sophistication of directors who have been trained abroad (mainly in American film schools) but confirms a similar and growing cine literate appreciation in the middle class urban youth audience. Of course we have been here before in the 1970s and early 80s when Shyam Benegal referred to his films as part of a new middle cinema and it is easy to position Shor in the City and respective films in such a category that negotiates between the commercial and art cinemas of India in such a way that offers an attractive artistic compromise for film makers, producers and audiences.
Shor in the City revolves around five stories in the city of Mumbai. They are urban stories that attempt to meditate on familiar aspects of the city including power, poverty, class and conflict. Structurally directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K are largely successful at weaving together the different narrative strands into a satisfying, if not far fetched, conclusion. The title card at the end claims every one of the events in the film was based on newspaper stories and this certainly holds true when one considers that micro details are emphasised as a way of validating an authentic reality. Admittedly songs do creep into the film but they are not signposted in anyway whilst melodramatic histrionics are equally restrained by the sympathetic characterisation. A fundamental point of thematic unity for many urban based multi protagonist films is the visibility of the city of Mumbai. Shor in the City gives us characters rarely seen indoors but instead shows us people constantly on the move and carried along by the flow of daily life. It is a perpetual flow of bodies, vehicles and buildings that overwhelm our powerless and fragmented protagonists in search of an anchor on to which they can fix their dreams, fears and hopes. Whilst the Ganpati celebrations seem to bring Mumbai together as a secular and collective community, the disparate lives of our struggling protagonists caught up in the euphoric religious celebrations points to the way in which most urban cities are home to an invisible underclass trying desperately to prove their worth. Like Abhay in the film who has returned from America to set up a small business in Mumbai, the city swallows him up until he gradually becomes another part of the unidentifiable mass of humanity. Shor in the City was critically lauded on its release and certainly serves to illustrate the creative vitality of the middle cinema multiplex film. What is somewhat dispiriting is the unwillingness of UK distributors to back these films as many recent independent multiplex films have simply been rejected. It doesn’t make commercial sense as they would find an audience in the UK especially amongst the youthful Diaspora.