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The Tragic Life of Silk Smitha

Ravi is an avid movie and theatre buff and loves films that surprise him. He specializes in dissecting movies and recommending the best ones

Silk Smitha was a movie star who ruled South Indian cinema during the 1980s. She was known as the Queen of Sensuality.

Silk Smitha was a movie star who ruled South Indian cinema during the 1980s. She was known as the Queen of Sensuality.

“Silukku! Silukku!” (Silk, Silk)

In the 1980s and 1990s, South Indian Cinema was ruled by Mohanlal, the undisputed superstar of the movie business. In a slew of superhits, he cemented his indomitable position and ensured that no other actor, male or female, came within striking distance of his stardom. All except the voluptuous Silk Smitha, the Marilyn Monroe of Indian cinema.

An incredible example of Silk’s popularity can be seen in the 1995 Malayalam hit Spadikam in which superstar Mohanlal was pitted against Silk Smitha as his love interest. The moment Silk came on the silver screen, the audience went berserk and started hollering “Silukku! Silukku!” as Mohanlal was entirely overshadowed by the simmering sensuality of Silk Smitha, still remembered 26 years after her death by a three-letter word: Si-lu-kku.

450 Films in a 17-Year Career

In a long and eventful career of over 17 years, Silk acted in over 450 films in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi languages. Her sensuality, clothes, dancing, and numerous affairs hypnotized her fans as they thronged the cinema halls panting for more and more of the dusky superstar.

As film historian Theodore Bhaskaran says,

“Ensuring the male gaze is very important in Tamil cinema, and Smitha brought loads of it. Smitha did not have much acting talent, but when it came to oozing eroticism, she had very few peers. If Smitha said, 'Let's go to the temple,' it would sound erotic."

On September 23, 1996, Silk committed suicide by hanging herself. However, her death has remained mysterious and unsolved for more than two decades after the tragedy.

In 2011, she was immortalized in celluloid by actress Vidya Balan who played Smitha in the blockbuster biopic, The Dirty Picture, which broke box office records and won multiple awards.

In 2011, Smitha was played by actress Vidya Bala in the blockbuster biopic, “The Dirty Picture," which broke box office records and won multiple awards.

In 2011, Smitha was played by actress Vidya Bala in the blockbuster biopic, “The Dirty Picture," which broke box office records and won multiple awards.

The Birth of Vijayalakshmi

Silk was born as Vijayalakshmi in a poor Telugu family in a small village named, Kovvali in Andhra Pradesh. The family’s financial condition was so bad that Vijayalakshmi had to leave education after the fourth form to start helping her mother with household chores.

At 14, her parents married her off to a factory worker without her consent. It was an unhappy marriage with an abusive and drunken husband on one side and oblivious, indifferent parents on the other.

Escapes an Abusive Marriage

After two years of misery, Vijayalakshmi changed her life forever. She escaped her abusive marriage by moving to Chennai to live with her aunt. There she started working as a touch-up artist. She also tried her luck in movies, but could not get anything beyond a few minor roles.

However, her luck changed one day when acclaimed film director Vinu Chakravarthy spotted her on a movie set. He was bowled by her seductive appeal, dusky complexion, and seductive eyes and immediately took her into his acting school. She was taught dancing, acting, and etiquette classes, and rechristened as Smitha.

The Birth of Silk Smitha

In 1979, Smitha starred in her first superhit Tamil film, Vandichakkaram, in which she portrayed a bar girl named Silk. She enthralled the audience so much that she came to be known as "Silk Smitha."

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Smitha continued to give sizzling performances in the coming two decades, wooing the ever-hungry audience, thus becoming the most sought-after sex siren in the 1980s movie industry.

Smitha was the most sought-after sex siren in the Indian movie industry of the 1980s.

Smitha was the most sought-after sex siren in the Indian movie industry of the 1980s.

Silk Becomes Baddest Woman

The 1980s movie industry was patriarchal, with women given only two types of roles: the "good" woman and the "bad" woman. The good woman was family-loving, pious, and chaste, living to support her husband and many sons. On the other hand, the bad woman was a homewrecker, wore revealing clothes, and was unapologetic about her body or her actions.

Silk played the bad woman and played it with such finesse that the chauvinistic industry became putty in her hands. She accepted that she would be treated as a sex object, but nobody but her would dictate the rules of the game. Over the next two decades, Silk became an unstoppable tornado, acting in more than 450 films in southern and Hindi languages.

Highest Paid Actress of the 1980s

No movie was deemed complete without her garish makeup, short dresses, and shimmering tassels, permanent fixtures in every film. Silk broke the female stereotypes prevalent in mainstream cinema as she commanded the highest fees any woman had ever received in the history of South Indian movies.

As film historian and writer Randor Guy wrote, "In the 1980s, she commanded a fee of 50,000 rupees ($800) per day for an appearance in a song sequence. No other heroine rivaled it."

During her 1980s peak, Silk Smitha commanded the highest fees any woman ever received in the history of South Indian cinema.

During her 1980s peak, Silk Smitha commanded the highest fees any woman ever received in the history of South Indian cinema.

The Death of Silk

Despite the fame, Silk was a lonely introvert surrounded more by fake people who wanted to take advantage of her than genuine well-wishers. After multiple failed relationships, Silk sought comfort in alcohol and drugs and soon drowned in depression. In the mid-1990s, Silk entered into a much-publicized live-in relationship with a married doctor, which failed like her other relationships.

On September 23, 1996, Silk Smitha was found dead at her Chennai apartment; the actress hung herself from a ceiling fan. She was only 35. According to a post-mortem report, Silk had a high alcohol content in her body.

Suicide at 35

Though the reason for her suicide remains unknown, it is believed that she took this drastic step due to disillusionment in love. A suicide note was recovered from Silk Smitha’s home, which featured multiple names.

As one of her friends, the actor Ravichandran, recalled in an interview,

"I was busy shooting that day and was surprised to see Smitha trying frantically to reach me a few times. I tried to speak to her, but the call never got through due to poor connectivity. I thought it was a routine call. However, to my horror, I realized that Smitha had killed herself the next day. I shudder to think of what could have been the reason for her call. This haunts even me now."

She was glamorous, ambitious, and the unapologetic “Queen of Sensuality." But the true Silk was just an ordinary small town girl who craved true love and got deceit and infidelity in return.

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© 2022 Ravi Rajan

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