It’s hard for anyone who has borne witness to this age of in-your-face sexuality and Internet porn to understand precisely how barren, in a sensory stimulus sense, the world of a hormonal teenager growing up in Chennai of the 1970s and 1980s was.
Remember, this was the pre-satellite TV era; there were no clandestine cables, strung from treetop to treetop, that would beam images of minimally attired models on FTV catwalks who, when they experienced wardrobe malfunctions (which they appeared frequently to do), would expose pixellated body parts.
Nor were we wired up to the world of the Internet, that is the first port of call for today’s teens stirred by strange and prurient longings.
Heck, even the films and television programmes of those days were calculated to not bestir our base instincts. The only hint of Grand Passion we ever got on screen was when couples, evidently in the mood for some mischief, ducked behind bushes and the camera zoomed in on interlocked sunflowers.
Into that barren desert world of cinematic asexuality Silk Smitha came like an oasis for parched travellers.
For sure, there had been cinema vamps before her, even in Tamil filmdom, but there was something extraordinarily oomphy about Silk, in a deep-south Dravidian and (dare I say it) dark-skinned sort of way, that appealed to us virginal Tamilian teenaged boys.
There was nothing subtle about Silk. (To be nomenclaturally correct, her name, which she was branded with from the eponymous character she played in her first film, was ‘Silukku’, a syllabic nuance that will resonate with audiences that, thanks to the kolaveri song, have a better appreciation of Tamil pronunciation oddities.)
There was, as I said, nothing subtle about her. Her skirts were pulse-racingly shorter, her blouses were cut scandalously lower, and her pelvic thrusts, of which she was called upon to deliver more than her fair share, had plenty more follow through. Even her seduction techniques were calculated to get engines vrooming in double-quick time.
By the anatomical attributes of today’s starlets, Silk was perhaps calorifically endowed, but for us it only meant that there was more of her to lust after. The flashy sequined dresses she was frequently dolled up in may not have measured up to elevated standards of aesthetics, but they were nevertheless redeemed by the fact that they were minimal in the extreme.
And, boy, were we besotted… In an age before Savita Bhabhi became mainstream counter-culture, Silk was for many of us validation that, yes, some women too throbbed with life forces that hadn’t until then been revealed to us. Even when we knew that her on-screen passion was patently put on, we believed that she was really into it. Long before Meg Ryan faked it in that famous scene in When Harry Met Sally, we were swayed by the verisimilitude of a Silk-y simulation.
I yield to no man in my appreciation of Vidya Balan’s sensuousness in The Dirty Picture, but as someone who grew up on Silk, I’m struck by the curious anachronism that characterises her — an A-list star’s — portrayal of Smitha’s tortured life. Silk was the consummate survivor from an earlier era when mainstream stars didn’t double as ‘item girls’ and the carnal energy was raw and edgy.
We were then too young to know or care about the gender politics of sexuality, and in any case the gush of male hormones pretty much drowned out anything that didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator of our schoolboy fantasies. We genuinely believed that our interest in her consummated her end of the transaction — although, years later, news of her unnatural death pointed to the ghosts she was, unbeknownst to us, battling.
For our generation, Silk marked, in many ways, a rite of passage through adolescence into adulthood. She didn’t just give us boys cheap thrills, she gave us lessons in life.