Early in The Dirty Picture, Vidya Balan's fiesty Silk tells a detractor that he should probably keep all his conceptions about the art of cinema aside, for there are three things that the public wants to see: "Entertainment. Entertainment. Entertainment." It's a formula that the makers follow well enough, and yet - The Dirty Picture is a frustrating experience in the most heartbreaking manner possible. Here is a movie that starts off as great, with a cracker of a opening half, then suddenly loses steam and just sort of chugs half-heartedly to the end. So one part of the movie is just so good that you want to implore everyone and their dog to run to the nearest theatre - but there's the obvious reservation about what the sum of the individual parts entails.
But let me try.
The movie's not-so-secret weapon is Vidya Balan, who gives the most astonishingly fearless performance of her career, and has an absolute blast doing it. She's helped in large part by that kicker of a script - it's essentially a barrage of one liners and marvelously bold innuendos that force you to gasp in horrified, convulsive laughter. Balan simply owns every single piece of fiery dialogue she's given, and lets her body language do the rest. Silk is a woman uninhibited in every way possible, and in one of the more courageous portrayals I've seen from a Bollywood actress, Balan flaunts her curves, her stomach that threatens to spill out of her tight jeans, her tongue languorously caressing her lips. There's a lot of flak that the actress has gotten following her acclaimed performance in Parineeta, including the oft-mooted point that she's probably best suited to the soft doe-eyed all-Indian-female role. To see her tap into something of this nature with such success is the biggest joy of The Dirty Picture.
The other attribute that gives the first half its potency is the many ideas about cinema and the audience that the movie throws at us. A hungry Silk has 5 rupees to get something to eat - but the sight of a new movie starring her cinema idol has her scurrying to the cinema hall and devouring the joy of the movies instead. There's the constant tension between the diatribes offered by various critics and the adoring masses; there is the editor of a gossip rag who admires Silk as much as she constantly slanders her; and in one of the most interesting scenes in the movie, a rant by Silk at an awards ceremony about who's the hypocrisy of the audience who exalts her and despises her sexuality at the same time. This final pre-intermission sequence sets you up for all kinds of exciting possibilities regarding the direction the movie might take, and I for one spent the intermission salivating at the ways in which the movie would take its ideas forward.
Unfortunately, The Dirty Picture's ambition sort of trails off there. It's interested in making the big speeches but not quite exploring the ideas behind them. It sets up romantic subplots that don't seem to go anywhere, and the riches-to-rags portion that it inevitably has to deal with is strangely unconvincing. It doesn't help that Tusshar Kappor hijacks the second half with some truly atrocious acting, and Emraan Hashmi's dormant character suddenly pushes himself into the movie in the closing twenty minutes (this includes the most abrupt sufi love song I've had to face in a while). There's an interesting narrative conceit where a character who despises our protagonist gets to relay her tale to her: but again, the character's motivations for disliking her are so poorly etched, his own anger so lazily realized, and his obvious turnaround so abrupt that it just doesn't work. There's also a relentlessly overbearing head-thumper of a score that starts out as charming throwback to the movies The Dirty Picture is gently ribbing, but then just kind of gives you a headache.
And that ending!!! It's - just - wrong. It feels like it's imported from a completely different story with a different sensibility, and even though I'm informed that was indeed the conclusion to the real Silk Smitha's story, I'm sorry but it just doesn't work. A movie that takes so many creative liberties otherwise cannot use the "this-is-all-biography" angle to shoehorn in something that feels so egregiously against its spirit otherwise. Tarantino for one realized this when he (spoiler alert!) decided to kill off Hitler in Inglorious Basterds' rip roaring climax.
That said, I'm still going to recommend this movie. Watch it for Vidya Balan giving the finger to a panoply of critics and discerning audiences (how meta!) and watch it for the sensational dialogue. If possible, walk out in the intermission and don't come back.