Smita Patil, along with Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, was one of the leading performers of Indian parallel cinema or the ‘Indian New Wave’ of the 1970s and 80s. What’s more, Smita ‘adjusted’ herself to be equally adept at mainstream Hindi cinema as well and was a major Bollywood star right through to her untimely and tragic death in 1986, when she was just 31.
Smita was born on October 17, 1955 in Pune, Maharashtra. Her father, Shivajirao Patil, was a Minister in the Maharashtra State Government and her mother, Vidyatai Patil, a social worker. Smita studied Literature and Humanities at the University of Mumbai.
Smita’s first brush with acting came in a diploma film made at the FTII in 1974 – Arun Khopkar’s Teevra Madhyam. She became a popular newscaster on Television and was noticed by Shyam Benegal, who cast her in small but pivotal roles, first in Charandas Chor (1975) and later Nishant (1975) respectively. Smita broke through majorly the following year with her earthy, rustic performance in Benegal’s Manthan (1976), set against the backdrop of Gujarat’s fledgling dairy industry. Incidentally, 5 lakh farmers in the state, each of whom contributed 2 Rs, produced the film! They came in truckloads to see ‘their film’ once released, thereby making it extremely successful at the box office!
Smita won her first National Award for Best Actress for Bhumika (1977), arguably both her’s and Benegal’s finest film. The film looks at an individual’s search for identity and self-fulfillment and is broadly based on the life of well-known Marathi stage and screen actress of the 1930s and 1940s, Hansa Wadkar, who led a flamboyant and unconventional life to say the least. Smita Patil’s essaying of the role is remarkable straddling different acting styles prevalent in Indian cinema of the time, while giving a contemporary identifiable performance of the actress, Usha, in her off-screen moments. It is, to put it simply, a standout act.
Following Bhumika, Smita went from strength to strength as an actress, giving superlative and heartfelt performances in off-beat films like Jait Re Jait (1977), Kondura/Anugrahan (1977), Gaman (1978), Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), Aakrosh (1980), Mrinal Sen’s ‘film within film’ – Akaler Sandaney (1980), Bhavani Bhavai (1980) and Chakra (1980). Special mention must be made of Akaler Sandhaney where Smita had the extremely difficult job of playing two radically different characters – ‘herself’ (the sensitive actor Smita Patil) and a poor village woman in the ‘film within film’ who ultimately sells her body to contractors from the city to save her son and family from the terrible pangs of hunger caused by the Great Bengal Famine. Needless to say, she excelled in the film. Smita’s dusky sensuous looks, unconventional beauty, amazing histrionic talent and unique voice impressed American critic Elliott Stein enough for him to comment, “At 25 Smita is clearly the queen of Indian parallel cinema, as much an icon for film-makers of the milieu as was Anna Karina for young directors in France at the outset of their new wave. Patil is not a classic beauty but the lady glows. She never makes a false move on screen.”
Chakra won Smita her second National Award for Best Actress as well as the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. In the film, Smita gives a landmark performance as a slum dweller, Amma, looking to better her life and trying to shield her son, Benwa (Ranjit Choudhary), from the local dada, Looka, whom Benwa idolizes. Chakra is perhaps the best and most realistic depiction of slum-life on the Indian screen. It is said Smita merged so beautifully with the actual slum dwellers that she moved about the slum unrecognised (the slum dwellers thought she was one of them) with a hidden camera following her. The film mixes the actual locales with set pieces most impressively thanks to art director Bansi Chandragupta’s brilliant recreation of Mumbai’s slums.
Smita breathed life into each of her performances. She always tried to play roles of women of substance, especially those which explored women trying to discover their true identity and trying to live life on their own terms. In her films, Patil’s character often represents an intelligent femininity that stands in relief against the conventional background of male-dominated cinema. This is apparent when one sees Manthan, Bhumika, Chakra and Umbartha (Marathi)/Subah (Hindi) (1981).
Umbartha/Subah sees perhaps Smita’s finest ever performance, Bhumika and Chakra notwithstanding. The film, scripted by Vijay Tendulkar, traces the self for quest of Sulabha (Smita Patil), married to a supposedly progressive advocate (Girish Karnad). She accepts the post of the director of a ‘Mahila Ashram’ for abandoned women. Here, she finds herself in the midst of a dark and corrupt world, where the inmates are at the mercy of power-hungry, rotten bureaucrats. Some women are drawn to suicide, others to prostitution. Sulabha discovers a sense of belonging, a feeling of community, as she assumes resposnsibilty for the inmates and gets their affection in return. She is, however, transferred when she persuades the women to resist the abusive practices to which they are subjected. Sulabha returns home after two years to find her daughter a stranger and her husband involved with another woman. The film sees Sulabha walking out and ends with her on a train heading for an unknown destination. The great director Costa-Gravas saw Umbartha and totally taken in by Smita’s poised and dignified performance, set events into motion that would make Smita the first Indian artist to have a full fledged retrospective of her films in France.
1982 was an extremely busy year for Smita as along with some of her great films like Bazaar, Sitam and Arth, she had a number of releases in mainstream Hindi cinema as well, including two films opposite Amitabh Bachchan – Shakti and Namak Halaal.
Though Shabana Azmi had the author backed role in Arth and won the National Award for Best Actress, Smita had her share of admirers, who felt it was she who scored in the film in the far more difficult role as the neurotic other woman, Kavita Sanyal, based reportedly on Parveen Babi. Just watch Smita in the scene where Shabana calls her and pleads with her to leave her husband alone. While the scene favours Shabana, who is as good as ever, Smita has to just listen to her and react silently; the gamut of expressions that ever so slightly flit across Smita’s face in this sequence are astounding to say the least.
While she had taken the plunge, Smita had not quite come to terms with the demands of mainstream Hindi cinema if her work in Namak Halaal and Shakti are examples to go by. Though Namak Halaal was a huge success, Smita looks distinctly awkward in the song and dance routine, particularly in the sensuous rain song Aaj Rapat Jaaye. It is said after the first day’s shoot of the song, she came home and cried, wondering what she was doing in mainstream cinema! And though Smita has her strong moments in Shakti like the scene where she invites Amitabh home to her place saying she really makes good coffee or when she tells him about her pregnancy and makes it clear she doesn’t want to forcefully bind him to her, she is, admittedly, out of her depth in the songs, particularly the ghazal she sings at the hotel where she works.
However, by and by, Smita learnt to cope with the demands of commercial cinema and learnt how to rise above the scripts she was offered leading to some extremely effective performances in Aaj Ki Awaz (1984), Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984), Akhir Kyon? (1985), Ghulami (1985), Amrit (1986), Nazrana (1987) and Thikana (1987).
On a parallel track, she continued to explore new avenues as an actress with films such as Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983), Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (1984), G Aravindan’s Chidambaram (1985) and one of her most popular performances, as Sonbai in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1985).
Mirch Masala (Spices) is set in colonial India during the early 1940’s when tax collectors (subedars) used to travel from village to village to demand taxes. By making use of their power, they would oppress villagers & seize their women along with property & money. One such subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) commands a local woman, Sonbai (Smita Patil), whose husband (Raj Babbar) is away, to sleep with him. Sonbai flees from his grasp and takes shelter in a local spice factory. This plunges the entire village into conflict. When a group of women wants to join Sonbai in her unusual insurrection, they are repelled by their own husbands. The villagers and village chief (Suresh Oberoi) must now decide whether to hand over Sonbai to the subedar, or let him continue to destroy their village and molest their wives, sisters and daughters. Finally, it is the women who take things into their own hands and teach the subedar a lesson. Smita’s central, blazing performance is the life and soul of Mirch Masala and was hailed by critics the world over. Quoting Rita Kempsky in the Washington Post, “Acclaimed for her portraits of exploited women, Patil gives an enigmatically feisty performance. If she and the filmmaker weren’t so able and the backdrop not so exotic, Spices would be little more than an ineffectual rant. There is a grunting ruthlessness to the drama, a vibrancy of character and moral obstinacy that compare favorably with Akira Kurosawa’s admittedly more elegant samurai movies.”
Smita was open to working in any language provided the script and her role excited her. She worked in Marathi (Jait Re Jait , Umbartha), Gujarati (Bhavani Bhavai), Telugu (Anugrahan), Bengali (Akaler Sandhaney), Kannada (Anveshane (1983)) and even Malayalam (G Aravindan’s Chidambaram). She also worked with the great Satyajit Ray in a film made for televison, Sadgati (1981), based on a Munishi Premchand story.
In her personal life, Smita Patil got involved with fellow actor Raj Babbar, who left his wife Nadira for Smita. The couple had a son – Prateik, now an actor himself – but complications following the childbirth saw Smita slip into a coma and pass away on December 13, 1986. With her passing, Indian cinema had lost one of its greatest talents much, much too early. It is a void that will never be filled…
Smita left behind a body of films in various stages of completion that continued to release after her death. Among her last films, her most noteworthy performance came in Ravindra Peepat’s Waaris (1988). Though Smita had completed the shooting of the film, a Mother India like drama of a woman fighting to save her land set against a typical Punjabi background, her dubbing was still left when she passed away. It was fellow actress Rekha, who brilliantly dubbed for Smita in the film, acknowledging the respect she had for Smita as an artist.
Smita’s last release was the crass potboiler Galiyon Ka Badshaah (1989).
Smita Patil was awarded the Padmashri by the Government of India in 1985 for her contribution to Indian Cinema.