The legend of Silk Smitha

  It has been 14 years since she was found dead, hanging from her ceiling in a grotesque manner, in her Chennai apartment. But the mere mention of the noun ‘silk’ doesn’t cease to evoke coy giggles from any south Indian movie fan. Even now. Such is the glee her name commands. She was the ‘item dancer’ long before the term was even invented and ubiquitous in the 80s cinema with her screen presence. She also had a fan following at par with her contemporary superstars.

Wet saris, two-piece ensemble bikinis and other outfits, considered promiscuous, symbolized her. Not that she wanted to be a sex queen, but she opted the easy way to make money. Born Vijayalakshmi, somewhere in Andhra Pradesh and hailing from a poor family, she took the train to Chennai, considered to be the hub of south Indian movies, quite early in her life to pursue the proverbial dream to make it big in cinema.

She did make it big in cinema (at least she made a name, if not money), but not possibly as what she wanted to be. She started out with Vandi Chakkaram (year 1979) as a bar dancer and the sobriquet ‘silk’, her character name in the movie stuck with her.

Having a sobriquet must have been quite a fancy those days, especially for actors who were meant to be sex symbols (there were also ‘CID’ Sakunthala and ‘disco’ Shanti).

She quickly became the stuff of erotica, both in movies and in real life for men of her times. Thanks to her bar girl role in Vandi Chakkaram, Silk got only similar offers. She took to soft porn films and became quite a rage in almost all the regional languages including Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and even Hindi.

She had always expressed regret for having been typecast as a sex bomb, whereas she wanted to do character roles. Rarely, she did get to do roles but even those roles were laced with sex one way or other. For instance, she played the disgruntled wife of an old man in Moondram Pirai and appeared in a steamy song sequence with Kamal Hassan (‘Pon Meni Urugude’). She also did dignified roles in movies like Alaigal Oivadillai and in comic roles in Paati Sollai Thattade and Avasara Police 100. There was even a movie titled ‘Silk Silk Silk’. A movie called Thanga Thaamarai, which she was reportedly working on before she died, got a theatrical release after 11 years of her death.

Her claim to fame came with dance numbers in all the regional languages. Starting from Pon Meni to her last song O Saloma Salo, she did hundreds of songs in the eighties and into the nineties. Her Telugu number Baavalu Sayya will look like it provided inspiration for Bipasha for her ‘Bidi Jalaile’ in Omkara. Baavalu Sayya was even remixed, but with a rather insipid effect. Another significant dance number is ‘Ezhimala Poonjola’ which she did with Mohanlal for his movie ‘Spadikam’.

Although she was all-pervading, her career wasn’t probably going great guns. She attempted production but her three Telugu films flopped miserably at the box office causing her financial and emotional distress. She had borrowed heavily for these movies and the financial commitments evidently gave her much anguish. She has had an unhappy personal life that also took a toll on her career and health. She slipped into depression and became addicted to alcohol. Smitha was said to be deeply pious and religious and had a temple in her house.

Silk’s eyes were half open when she was found dead in her apartment. And that image of hers, flashed across the media after her death, reportedly haunted many of her fans long after.

She might be dead and gone, but her story and mysterious death is still a stuff of fantasies. A biopic is being produced by Ekta Kapoor, titled, The Dirty Picture. Vidya Balan is said to play Silk in this movie, while Mallika Sherawat’s name is also being rumored. Silk Smitha died in her Chennai apartment on September 23, 1996.

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