Sexuality and The Dirty Picture

Written by  //  December 16, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  1 Comment

[In this two-part series, Zoheb Hossain, explores the theme of sexuality in The Dirty Picture. Spolier Alert: This is not a review but an analysis. If you want a review without spoilers, see Danish’s review here]

Ever since I have seen The Dirty Picture, I have been eager to write about it as I found its central premise of sexuality and the characters therein rich for psycho-analytic thought. At the outset, I wish to clarify that this is not a review of the film, but an attempt at exploring and analyzing the underlying themes of sexuality portrayed in the film through its characters. And secondly, for those who haven’t seen the film, beware of spoilers ahead. Due to the length of this piece, this analysis is divided into two parts – with the first part focusing on characters played by Vidya Balan and Emran Hashmi, who I think reflect the contrapuntal forces to the film, an important dramatic technique to create conflicts, whose resolution becomes the film’s and the characters’ purpose. The second part analyses the characters that serve to highlight larger problems which affect the protagonist of the film and are used to lay bare the symptoms of the times.


The Dirty Picture’s central theme is one of the most complex phenomena which we find ourselves struggling with – sexuality and more specifically female sexuality, which even philosophers and psychoanalysts have only sought to understand. As Freud put it, “. . . psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is – that would be a task it could scarcely perform – but sets about enquiring how she comes into being’. [1]

The film’s success lies in confronting head-on the popular conceptions of sexuality, and laying bare the truth that sexuality can never be equated with genitality or a simple expression of biological drive. That, it “is always psycho-sexuality, a system of conscious and unconscious human fantasies involving a range of excitations and activities that produce pleasure beyond the satisfaction of any basic psychological need.[2]

In this analysis, apart from appreciating the film’s attempt to critique a male-dominated film industry, I seek to show how the film successfully plumbs the psychological depths of a plethora of characters, who are at various stages of their sexual identities.

Vidya ‘Silk’ Balan

“Interest (monetary) and love are not opposed, but the search for the means of subsistence must predominate” – Kamasutra 6.1.19

A quote from the Kamasutra[3], the oldest extant treatise on erotic love is fitting here; since sexuality, the central theme of this film, is as popularly misconceived as the Kamasutra, being a book on merely sexual positions.

Vidya Balan as Silk is iconoclastic, bold and irreverent which makes her immediately attractive not simply because she exhibits “ample breasts, cleavage, legs, and biting of her lower lip” but because she seduces people to wholeheartedly embrace the ibid, the repository of instinctual desires – a courage which they often lack in themselves. The time and context – a poor lower class girl in a thoroughly male-dominated Tamil film industry in the 1980s, makes Silk’s courage especially laudable. Surya, a male protaganist’s disparaging comment in the film that – “the career of an actress is like governments in a democracy – it only lasts for around 5 years” – about his erstwhile heroine now playing the role of his mother is symptomatic of the deeply entrenched cultural inequality and prejudice against female actors within the Tamil film industry at the time.

To understand splits in Silk’s psyche, it would be important to see how identities are formed. The formation of identity is a process of cognition by the subject and its recognition by the society one inhabits. Cooley’s “looking glass self” theory explains the process that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of other.  He summed up in his statement: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am”.[4] The skewed growth of Silk’s psyche and her mental illness exposes the warps, poisons and ills of society. The sexuality, which brought her meteoric success and heightened her narcissism, in turn increased her loneliness and tyrannized her and resulted in her ultimate downfall. People’s inability to see beyond Silk’s body disabled her from seeing herself within, as a person capable of feelings and thoughts, and not merely an object for producing sexual excitation. Silk’s rise as well as her fall lays bare a sad truism that success and failure of a woman in a deeply stratified and patriarchal society (of which the Tamil film industry is only a microcosm) will depend on how far she is willing to further and perpetuate the dominant constructs.

Silk’s difficulty lay in her inability to understand and stare at what lay beneath the skin – the internal reality and take up problems in the mind until the pain and suffering forced her to do so; which is when she faced a total collapse in the dark recesses of her mind which she had never visited before.

Emran Hashmi – The Dark Horse

“The problem lies with the gaze, not its object.” [5]

While Vidya Balan was expected to dazzle in the film, it is Emran Hashmi who is the dark horse and pleasantly surprises in the role of an “intellectual” filmmaker, Abraham. He not only breaks his own stereotype from earlier films of being a one-dimensional sexualized lover but is also seen taking a dig at it with the remarkable ease and security of an actor who has found himself. Emran portrays Abraham’s inability to deal with his own sexuality with aplomb. This was evident from his raging outbursts at Silk’s overt sexualism in her first film as a dancer and his act of burning the film-roll so that it can never be used by the producer for cheap commercial gimmicks. His anger mixed with disgust towards Silk and what she symbolizes is well essayed. Abraham’s inability to own up and deal with his sexuality is also obvious in the intellectualization of emotions in his films, which others accuse him of as a lack of masala – a euphemism for lacking sexuality. His acknowledgement that his own films put him to sleep is a signifier of his impending growth. His character is almost as tortured as Silk’s throughout the film although more privileged and therefore less desperate and insecure. But he evolves through his conflicts and is seen owning up the ridiculous which is an inherent part of being human as well as accepting and mocking his own excessive sexuality by playing a triple role of a debauched old grandfather, father and son openly enjoying their sexuality in the company of beautiful women. While strangely, this reflects his growth, he is far from living out a real relationship till the end and his only hope soon dies thereafter. It’s not ironic that he manages to acknowledge his love for Silk only in her decline when her erstwhile ‘beauty’ is almost de-sexualised by her alcoholism and mental illness and her sexuality no longer poses an acute threat to him. In spite of this, he can only manage a “Sufiyana” love for her, which is often bereft of sexuality; one, which is felt for Gods and Goddesses and not “our everyday real love”. While the credit for imagining a complex character as this one goes to Milan Luthra, the director and Rajat Arora, the script writer, Emraan Hashmi shows what he can do given a difficult role.

[Part II will follow next week. For another take on the Dirty Picture see Suhas’s piece: here]

[1] (Freud, XXII, 1933, o. 116: italics added)

[2] (Lacan, Book XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the limits of love and knowledge, 1972-73 (Encore).



[5] Kakar, Sudhir, The Ascetic of Desire, p. 66

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