Filmmaker Adhik Ravichandran's Mark Antony starring actors Vishal and SJ Surya has been a huge commercial success, with its outlandish quality celebrated by fans. In particular, the film has been in talks for two reasons. The first is the hyper-dramatic performance of SJ Surya. The second is the CGI creation of late actress Silk Smitha who appears in the film's now-most popular sequence.
During the success meet of the film, the filmmakers claimed that the CGI creation (Lookalike Vishnu Priya Gandhi played Silk in the film but the makers used CGI to replicate her exact structure and face) was a tribute to the actor. The appearance of Silk Smitha in the film raises important questions about recreating actors who aren't alive anymore. Because this essentially means that they have no control over how their image is represented in the film. In Mark Antony, Silk Smitha is portrayed in a stereotypically hyper-sexualised manner, which is clearly aimed at enticing and surprising the theatre-going male audience.
However, there's no clear information if any permission was sought from the actor's family or if they were adequately compensated in terms of money. Even if a family has given their consent, that still doesn't mean that the actor can be portrayed in any way. If Silk Smitha was alive today, she clearly would have charged several crores for her appearance in the film.
A recent debate on the second season of the series Made in Heaven (2023) between its filmmakers Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti and writer Yashica Dutt deliberated on the ethics of creating a fictional character who uncannily resembles a real person. The controversy was with respect to an episode called The Heart Skipped a Beat, directed by Neeraj Ghaywan. Several viewers of the series found that in the episode, the character of Pallavi Menke (Radhika Apte), who comes from a Dalit community, reminded them of writer Yashica Dutt.
The statement issued by the writer and the filmmaker's response led to a full-blown debate on social media. Supporters of Yashica Dutt demanded that the filmmakers officially credit the writer and compensate her for borrowing from her life and work. At the same time, another set of people believed that inspiration in storytelling cannot be tied to a single person. Irrespective of which side you stand for, the debate was useful in making people reflect on the issue. Writing characters based on real-life people isn't new in cinema. In Iruvar (1997), filmmaker Mani Ratnam based his characters on Kalaignar Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa.
Even in the recent film Maamannan by Mari Selvaraj, a huge section of the audience and critics felt that the character of Maamannan, played by Vadivelu, was actually based on P Dhanapal. Dhanapal is a politician from Tamil Nadu who held the speaker post for two consecutive terms. However, in all these cases, even if the characters were borrowed from real life, they were reasonably fictionalised for cinema. But this isn't the case with Mark Antony's portrayal of Silk Smitha.
In Mark Antony, Silk Smitha has been recreated using CGI. The only other time we have seen a deceased actor appear in a film was in Soundarya Rajinikanth's Kochadaiiyaan (2014), where actor Nagesh was recreated as a 3D animated model. But since the film bombed at the box office, Nagesh's presence didn't really make much difference to its popularity or success. But in this case, it was mentioned that it was Nagesh's grandson who dubbed for the actor. So there is implied consent from the actor's family. However, in the case of Mark Antony, the presence of Silk Smitha has created great curiosity and helped the footfall at the theatres. It might be convenient for the filmmakers to call this a tribute to the actor and get away with it.
For argument's sake, let us imagine if the makers of Mark Antony had recreated late actor Sridevi for the same role and decided to portray her in a hyper-sexualised way. Sridevi's presence could have certainly helped them market the film. But at the same time, there is a very good chance that Sridevi's husband and film producer Boney Kapoor would have sued the filmmakers and taken them to court. Because Sridevi comes from a privileged family that consists of producers and actors, one can't easily recreate an image on screen without the family's permission. More importantly, it cannot be done for free.
However, in the case of Silk Smitha, we do not know who her family members are and the clout they might possess. Silk Smitha had produced films that were box office failures. In all probability, her family may not have the economic strength to fight a legal battle with the filmmakers of Mark Antony. In such a situation, this is clearly a case of exploitation on multiple levels. First, Silk Smitha has been recreated as a character without her family's permission. Secondly, the family has not been duly compensated. And more importantly, she has been portrayed as a hyper-sexualised commodity without any form of consent.
Silk Smitha might have once been popular for her glamorous dance performances. However, post her death in 1996, there have been newer perspectives to understand the work. To state a few examples, writer Jenny Rowena's two-part essay, The’dirt’ in the Dirty Picture, Caste, Gender and Silk Smitha, published in the anti-caste platform Round Table India and writer Vijeta Kumar's article S for Silk Smitha, have all played an important role in redefining the actor in popular perception.
Silk Smitha isn't looked as just a passive glamorous dancer anymore, but as a dark-skinned Bahujan woman who used her body as a form of political assertion. Also as someone who challenged the Savarna beauty standards and created a space for herself in an industry that was mostly dominated by upper-caste men. In Pa Ranjith's Madras, when Catherine Tresa's character asks Karthi, who his favorite female actor is, he blushes and goes on to explain what a beauty Silk Smitha was. Which is then followed by a playful tiff between the lovers. So it is not surprising that Silk Smitha is today celebrated as a symbol of Dravidian beauty. And this is why her portrayal in Mark Antony comes across as disappointing.
The film refuses to recognise today's perception of Silk Smitha but goes backwards in time to hyper-sexualise her as a mere market commodity. I hope filmmakers are more mindful when they recreate deceased actors on screen and not get into crass portrayals just to set the box office registers ringing. The deepfake technology has already been a cause of concern for actors. It is only if filmmakers are cautious in how they use AI, that they could do justice to all stakeholders.
Mark Antony will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from October 13.