Bringing sexy back, well, almost

Dec 11, 2011, 02:25 IST | Paromita Vohra

A lot of words have been devoted to the supposed surprise casting of Vidya Balan as a sex symbol in Milan Luthria's somewhat frustrating, The Dirty Picture.
Apparently, Vidya Balan is an earnest girl-next-door type without much ooh la la. Or, put another way, a sari-wali type, and the kiss of death in the sexiness (and clubbing) department, Rekha or no Rekha.

Illustration/ Satish Acharya

Someone should have sent me a memo because I've always thought she was a rather sexy woman, sadly working in a time which is all about the gurlzzz and bwoys.

Who else but Vidya Balan could have played this role? Which female star has eyes that exude such knowing, complicit warmth and that open laugh which plays no games except mutually agreed on ones? Who right now has such a grown-up, intelligent and feminine air?

And who else has struggled as much with lack of acceptance in a certain cool set as Ms Balan? It was not that long ago that SRK and Saif Ali Khan in one of those bad babalog antics gave her a parodic award for being the worst dressed actor, or reviews could never resist mentioning that Balan was too overweight (and sari-wali) to be sexy.

The fact that people doubted Balan's oomph is a sad comment on how we see sexy today -- mostly as very thin, coquettish girls -- semi-virginal, wearing frocks -- oh sorry, dresses -- squealing, giggling, wide-eyed, disingenuous like Genelia in Jaane Tu...  or Priyanka in Dostana.

This is the perceived norm, even though, in real life, different people find a million different things sexy. It's uncommon to find female actors playing adult women, instead of girl-women characters who show a mixture of confidence, vulnerability, decision-making and dilemma, and in the process look less than 'perfect'.
Excepting Vidya Balan, who has repeatedly played the woman who acts on her desire and handles the consequences with self-possession in films like Paa and Ishqiya.

The one thing Milan Luthria's film really has going for it is that he recognises and loves this quality in not only Vidya Balan, but all such women, including Silk Smitha.
That's also what makes the film so confusing -- it has remarkable empathy for its central character, but not enough understanding to make us see things anew. For all the frankness of its protagonist, the film struggles and fails to seriously challenge how we think about sex, success and women.

Sex is still presented as a problem, which eventually leads to downfall for women, who don't know their limits. Reshma is an outsider figure, who mirrors our worst selves, both through her reckless outspokenness and her open desires.

She thinks by letting men know she's on to them, she will be let into their club. She does not realise that even as she, literally, flagellates herself, the whip isn't, metaphorically, in her hand (the one truly cinematic sequence in the movie). So she must die. Yeah well, you can find this morality tale in a million issues of Manohar Kahaniyan.

Good intentions may not be enough to make a great film. But good intentions and a loving gaze did bring us Vidya Balan. Yes, a lot of people will be seeing this film precisely for the titillation it critiques.

But cinema can also change our gaze with its own, and with this other kind of body not only ample but libidinal and avid and free, Vidya Balan (not her character) looks us right in the eye, with a rather feminist directness, just before she winks, and she changes something. May she win not just this round, but the whole damn game as she brings sexy back.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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