The concept of a silver jubilee film is almost quaint now. There was a time, however, when even B-grade releases ran for months in theatres. At least a hundred of those films belonged to Shakeela Khan, one of the biggest softcore stars of the South, someone whose films ruled the box-office and were dubbed in multiple foreign languages. She was also widely derided, hounded by the press and the public, and has since lived in relative obscurity.
Shakeela’s journey from a young schoolgirl in Varkala, Kerala to becoming a controversial film star is captured in Indrajit Lankesh’s eponymous biopic. The film is closely modelled on Milan Luthria’s 'The Dirty Picture', which traced the equally turbulent rise of Silk Smitha (Silk appears as a character here). There’s also a whiff of Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika — the story of a fatherless starlet turning to film to draw her family out of poverty. Beyond that, though, the film’s cinematic merits are scant, despite an engaging turn by Richa Chadha as Shakeela.
A major problem is a way the film looks at its own subject matter. You’d expect a biopic of a celebrated adult star to present a nuanced view of the industry she thrived in. A sense of that is established when we see protesters burning effigies and demanding a ban on Shakeela’s movies. As the film progresses, though, it succumbs to the same moralising it claims to criticise. Shakeela herself does this, deeming her own films vulgar and cheap, and wishing to revive herself as a family-friendly star.
The low-budget adult cinema of the 1990s was undoubtedly sexist and deeply exploitative. Shakeela, while highlighting these realities, also begins to judge porn as inherently immoral. It’s a bit strange of the makers to claim to celebrate Shakeela’s journey while also discrediting her life’s work. When a link is drawn between her rising popularity and instances of rape and sexual violence in the state, the film doesn’t stop to investigate such a logic. Instead, it quickly turns it into a revenge ploy on the part of Salim (Pankaj Tripathi), a fictionalised Malayalam cinema star whose advances Shakeela declines.
Pankaj, in velvet suits and stroking a saggy moustache, bumbles around as a peevish superstar. His rivalry with Shakeela is almost cartoonish, punctuated by loosely funny scenes with an action choreographer (“Different Danny,” the man introduces himself, before asking him to leap over a one-foot fence). Cinematographer Santosh Rai opts for a highly contemporised look, eschewing the scuffed-up feel of old Shakeela films. The same, though, cannot be said of the narrative — which is so contrived and haphazard as to take us directly back to the era. “Say something new,” Salim quips at one point, and I wish he had a microphone at hand. It’s a message that should have rung out throughout this production.
Cast: Richa Chadha, Pankaj Tripathi, Kajol Chugh, Rajeev Pillai
Directed by: Indrajit Lankesh