In this talk, I focus on the career and stardom of the South Indian actress Silk Smitha (1960-1996) to explore the varied modalities through which sexuality, death and excess are mapped onto her image posthumously. A dancer-turned-actress, Smitha’s presence in the industry was reflective of the hierarchical practices and structural barriers that denied lower-caste actors equal stakes in the film industry. As someone who enacted sexualized roles in mainstream films, Smitha’s image was easily co-opted to stand-in for soft-porn cinema, even though soft-porn as an industrial category emerged only after her death. Using archival material including film magazines, obituary columns, erotic fiction, studio photographs and film journalistic reports, I locate how Smitha’s lingering presence animates the imagination of the madakarani (sex-siren) and the aspirations for upward mobility associated with such a figure even today. Simultaneously I analyze how matrices of caste, class and sexuality shape media publics, intimacy and gender relations in India’s film industries.
Darshana Mini’s teaching and research lie at the intersection of gender, sexuality, transnational media, migrant media and screen cultures of South Asia.
Her current book project “Rated A: Soft-Porn Cinema and Mediations of Desire in India” examines the genre of soft-porn in India and how it impacts public discourse on sexuality, obscenity, sex-work and sex-education. Using archival and ethnographic methods, the project tracks the emergence of the genre in the South India-based Malayalam film industry from the 1970s-2000s, by focusing on the formation of media publics—relationships, formations and exchanges in the public sphere, facilitated by the affective power of media. Produced in the state of Kerala, Malayalam soft-porn films incorporated transgressive desires and non-normative sexual practices through narratives and production decisions that unsettled heteronormative patriarchy. She engages a two-pronged strategy to explore soft-porn film’s production, circulation and exhibition history. First, she undertakes an ethnographic mapping of the actual spaces where these films were produced, and thereby account for the resistance, struggles and survival tactics employed by the technicians, filmmakers, actors and distributors. Second, using a combination of archival research, online ethnography and narrative analysis, she examines how the figure of the madakarani (sex-siren)—a sexually autonomous woman who is unabashed about her upward mobility, offers a new mode of looking at female pleasure and desire in the context of Indian cinema. Combining archival, ethnographic and textual analysis, she locates new imaginations of sexuality and politics in informal film practices and transnational flows. Her research is based on the idea that while histories and cultures of sexuality are locally specific, they often travel and have impacts in worlds that are not immediate to them. Her dissertation research was funded by Social Science Research Council (SSRC), American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) and Asia Research Institute, NUS. Excerpts from the dissertation also received a Student Writing Prize awarded by the Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and the Claudia Gorbman Award from the Sound and Music Studies Special Interest Group at SCMS.