One night in 2006, in a ramshackle theatre in Chennai, a well-known producer Oscar Ravichandran saw a film fated to be a failure, withdrawn after a two-week run. Impressed by the story and the starcast the producer bought out the rights of the film Chithram Peshudi by newbie director Myshkin and marketed it aggressively – particularly one song – Vaale Meenukum – which later came to be known as the ‘yellow saree item number’. The song became a hit and when two weeks later the film was released again, audiences came pouring in.
Myshkin has repeated his yellow saree item numbers in his ensuing films, though loyal fans insist on producer pressure as the reason. Whatever the reason, ‘item numbers’ are still a huge part of Tamil cinema, as it so in Hindi cinema. For most part, the life of the vamp in the Tamil film industry – ran identical to her avatars in Hindi films -- the seductress, the gangster’s moll, the club/cabaret dancer. The actresses who played the vamp moved fluidly between the various branches of the South Indian cinema – Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada with an occasional Hindi film performance.
Though Silk Smitha (from the eighties to mid-nineties) is more known on Hindi films shores, (more so now thanks to the so-called biopic The Dirty Picture), there have been other actresses who ruled the vamp game including –Jyothi Lakshmi (seventies and eighties) known for her cabaret numbers and her sister Jayamalini, (the seventies and the eighties) who has acted in a staggering number of more than 500 films across South Indian languages, Disco Shanti, (mid eighties to mid nineties), Anuradha (seventies and eighties), and Shakeela who also ruled the Malayalam soft porn industry from the late nineties till her exit in mid-2000.
Many of these actresses including Silk Smitha and Disco Shanti had attempted to work as the heroine but they were firmly let down by the audiences and had to switch back to their vamp space.
It should be noted though that by the time the vamp decline in the Hindi films began in the seventies, the vamp in South Indian industry had moved to erotica or soft porn imagery. From a significant if not pivotal character, she was reduced to being purely and simply means of visual pleasure. Whether she was in the garb of a village girl or cabaret dancer – the costume in her wardrobe was more bare moving out of the realm of dare, her gestures more lewd, and her words more bawdy.
By end of nineties and the new millennium, this role was effectively taken over by heroines, where leading actresses performed the same routine. Much as the folk based nautanki Beedi jalaile in Omkara) or lavani (Chikni Chameli in Agneepath) item numbers in Hindi, songs based on Tamil folk – kuthu (Nakka Mukku in Kadhalil Vizhunthen) are performed both as item numbers or part of the song and dance sequences in the film by a leading actress or the heroine of the film.
Insiders accuse current filmmakers of preferring non-Tamil, fair skinned actresses to play opposite Tamil heroes – this ‘gori miss’ phenomenon that satisfies the male gaze’s fantasy holds the vamp redundant. These actresses often had to put on weight to achieve the wholesome, plump figure that the audiences and the filmmakers favour in South Indian films.
Tamil cinema has seen its fair share of strong women characters often under the direction of K Balachandar (Avargal – 1977, Sindhu Bhairavi - 1985), Mani Ratnam (Mounaragam – 1986)), however these have remained on the rare side.