The siren of South Indian cinema of the 1980s, dancer-actress Silk Smitha enjoyed stardom unlike anyone else. Her fans could not get enough of her sultry eyes and heaving moves. Part of several successful dance numbers, she had entered the industry as a supporting actress. Nicknamed Silk after the name of her character in her first major role in the Tamil film Vandi Chakkaram (1980), she would go on to become the most sought-after erotic actress of the decade. In the course of a career spanning 17 years, she acted in more than 450 films across Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Hindi cinema. At the peak of her career, her power to draw in audiences was so huge that, according to film historian Randor Guy, films which had been lying in the cans for years were sold by the simple addition of a Silk Smitha song! Dubbed a soft-porn actress by certain sections of the media, she often essayed a skimpily-clad strong agent beating up the baddies. Filmmakers appreciated her professionalism and child-like heart. She ventured into production with the film Penn Simham (1987). With time and changing fortunes, she slipped into a depression compounded by failed relationships, and eventually ended up taking her own life.
Born Vijayalakshmi Vadlapati on 2 December 1960 into a poor Telugu family in Andhra Pradesh, the family’s financial constraints compelled her to discontinue her studies at the age of eight. Married off at a young age, she suffered abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Fleeing to find a new life in Chennai, she joined the film industry as a make-up touch-up artist for an actress. However, it was perhaps only expected that she would soon be up on the big screen herself…
Starting off with small character roles, she won her first break as a heroine in the Malayalam film Inaye Thedi; the film, directed by Anthony Eastman, would release later in 1981. Meanwhile, she was noticed by director Vinu Chakravarthy, who, along with his wife, took her under their wing. She was taught English as well as dancing. Introduced in films by the name Smitha, she had her first major role in the 1979 hit film Vandi Chakkaram. The pre-fix Silk became a part of her name after a character she essayed by the name of Silk. Praise flowed her way for her performance and she was to be ‘Silk Smitha’ thereafter.
Her striking looks and sex appeal saw her quickly being typecast. Offered onscreen opportunities to play cabaret dancers and vamps, she soon became the go-to actress for ‘item numbers’ and bold erotic roles. Her specialisation in raunchy hit dance numbers saw her becoming part of several successful films in the 1980s and 1990s across Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada as well as Hindi cinema, to a lesser extent. In fact, a special number by Silk almost guaranteed a film a grand opening! She left her mark in films such as the Rajinikanth starrer Moondru Mugham (1982), Amaran (1992), and Halli Meshtru (1992). Layanam (1989), a romance thriller that depicted the sexual attraction of an older woman towards a young man and their relationship, achieved cult status in the Indian adult film industry. It was dubbed in numerous languages, and acquired cult status.
Despite the obvious typecasting, her histrionic talent still managed to shine through when the rare opportunity for a non-sexual role presented itself. Case in point, her role in Alaigal Oivathillai (1981), as the wife who conceals her husband’s shameful rape of their maid in order to protect the image of the family, and her later poignant admission of her mistake…
The Balu Mahendra directorial Moondram Pirai (1982) remains one of her most respected films. Starring Sridevi and Kamal Haasan, Silk played the wife of the lead character’s headmaster, who is attracted to him, but her feelings are not reciprocated. The film was remade in Hindi as Sadma (1983), with the lead cast including Silk, reprising their roles.
Other films that established her standing include Sakalakala Vallavan (1982), Paayum Puli (1983), and Thanga Magan (1983). Filmmakers unanimously rated her as a thorough professional.
She ventured into film production with the Malayalam film Penn Simham, which released in 1987. Directed by M S Mani, she played a character named Reshma in a cast that comprised Anuradha, Kuthiravattam Pappu, Ratheesh and Jagathy Sreekumar. However, she would go on to suffer financial losses as a producer, which would hit her on a personal level. With age, acting offers had also reduced considerably. Her failed relationships also took their tool. An introvert by nature, there weren’t many friends to support her through this difficult period. Sinking into a depression, she suffered alone.
Her end also remains shrouded in mystery. She contacted her friend, dancer Anuradha, to discuss a matter that was disturbing her. When Anuradha reached the following morning of 23 September 1996, after dropping her child off at school, Smitha was found dead by hanging. She was 35. The post-mortem revealed that Smitha had large amounts of alcohol in her body and had committed suicide. A suicide note was also recovered from her home. In it, she had reportedly named a person for cheating her.
Silk Smitha continues to live on in popular culture. The Ekta Kapoor production directed by Milan Luthria was inspired by her life. Titled Dirty Picture (2011), it was headlined by Vidya Balan who went on to win the National award for best actress for her performance in this biographical musical drama film. Along with its Telugu and Tamil dubbed versions, it had released on Silk’s birthday - 2 December. Receiving favourable reviews, it became a hit.
Her life also inspired the Kannada-language biographical film Dirty Picture: Silk Sakkath Maga (2013) with Veena Malik essaying the lead role. The film portrayed the story of an aspiring actress who is ready to go to any extent to make it big in the cinema industry. It was financially successful and was also dubbed in Telugu as Red Mirchi.
The Malayalam biographical film Climax (2013) also depicted the life of the actress, featuring Sana Khan in the lead role. It was also dubbed in Tamil titled Oru Nadigayin Diary, and in Telugu under the name Gajjala Gurram. However, the film came with the disclaimer that the characters were imaginary.
The legend of the rebellious and independent Silk, who thumbed a nose at societal hypocrisies and carved her own fiery path, vulnerabilities and all, remains strong.