Obituary: Silk Smitha

Silk Smitha revolutionised southern India's prolific film industry through her song-and-dance and cabaret numbers in some 300 films.

She performed these numbers so provocatively that leading Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam distributors from the south would only accept films which included her sultry and erotic cabarets, irrespective of whether the story line warranted them or not. For her efforts and her rather ample, though supple bulk she was christened "Thundering Thighs".

Smitha initially played serious lead roles in several Telegu films, but, over-partial to revealing, sequinned bodices and low-slung, tight-fitting saris, she was eventually typecast as the ultimate sex-siren, utterly desirable but just out of reach.

Then, after nearly 20 years of playing such roles, Smitha's career floundered and she moved, rather disastrously, into producing movies. Two of her Telegu films flopped recently at the box office while the third, released earlier this month, was also a failure. Smitha had borrowed heavily to make these films and this, combined with her unhappy personal life and alcohol dependency, finally led to her committing suicide.

Born into a poor family in Eluru in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in 1960, she was christened Vijayalakshmi but, at an early age changed her name to Smitha. After Vandi Chakkaram ("The Wheel"), her first Tamil film in 1979, Smitha began calling herself "Silk" after the bar girl of that name she played in the movie. Silk is also an anglicised word for "silku", used colloquially in parts of south India to mean an "endearing flirt with a touch of glamour", a sobriquet which suited her screen persona.

Smitha left school after the fourth standard determined to become a film star, and at the age of nine moved in with her aunt in Madras, the centre of southern India's booming film industry. Madras easily rivals Bollywood, India's film capital city of Bombay, not only in the number of films it produces annually and its lavish studios, but also in the number of box- office hits it produces.

Southern India's film industry also has a firmer grip on the locals than anywhere else in the country. The cult of the film star M.G. Ramachandran, better known as MGR, who became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state on the strength of his acting career, was so all- encompassing that scores of Tamilians committed suicide by setting themselves on fire or jumping out of moving trains when he died in the mid- Eighties.

Similarly, N.T. Rama Rao, who invariably featured as a god in Telegu movies, was treated with ecclesiastical reverence by people in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state and twice elected its chief minister.

Smitha too became a household name after Tamil films like Moondram Pirai ("Third night of the New Moon"), Moondru Mugam ("Three Faces") and Kozhi Kuvuthu ("The Cock is Crowing"). Besides Tamil cinema she also featured in scores of Telegu, Malayalam and even mainstream Hindi films in Hollywood.

Smitha's personal life, however, contrasted sharply with her screen persona. She was deeply religious and like many pious Indians had her own little temple at home where she prayed several times a day.

Vijayalakshmi ("Silk" Smitha), actress: born Eluru, Andhra Pradesh, south India 1960; died Madras 23 September 1996.

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