When Smita Patil breathed her last on the midnight of December 13, 1986, the world of cinema in general and Indian Cinema in particular, lost a unique talent.
Starting out in the early seventies (1974) with Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor – a first for both – Smita soon developed into an actress of great intuitive talent and artistic worth. Her dusky, smouldering, earthy looks, coupled with her histrionic voltage, made her one of the Stars of the New Cinema that was blitzing the screen and consciousness of a newer and more perceptive audience.
Along with Shabana Azmi, Naseer Shah and Om Puri, she formed the most potent quartet representing the parallel Cinema. Mahthan, Bhumika, Chakra, Albert Pinto, Akrosh… She was there, everywhere, with those fiery looks, sensuous body and blazing talent, sufficiently impressing renowned American critic’ Elliot Stein to rhapsodise, “At twenty-five 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.”
Daughter of a minister and committed social worker, Smita came into the world of movies via the “Box”. A Marathi newsreader for Bombay TV. She was spotted by Shyam Benegal and cast in Charandas Chor. “She had a presence which I felt could be well utilized in cinema” recalls Benegal.
The Director’s prediction proved dead on-target and that’s how Manthan came about – the film in which both the Benegal discoveries (Shabana and Smita) shared the frame for the first time, triggering off a long eventful love-hate relationship, while providing unending grist for the film gossip mill.
Manthan shot her into public focus but it was the heroine-oriented Bhumika that shot her into limelight,fetching her the first of her two Best Actress awards and inviting applause and accolades galore.
Noted film critic & scholar Rauf Ahmed led the pack with Smita’s Bhumika – Breakthrough in Hindi films. Raved Ahmed “Smita Patil has succeeded in creating a searing image of a woman on the run, escaping from one hollow relationship to another. The breakthrough is Smita’s as well as Bhumika’s!”
Interestingly, Jaya Bachchan was sufficiently impressed by her presence to describe it as something that “Makes you sit up and take notice. Her reflexes are uninhibited and she has a face with tremendous mobility”. Instantly the big question was: Would she or wouldn’t she join the commercial bandwagon? On cue, the Masala-Wala’s lined up outside her door but the actress had apprehensions and didn’t seem ready. She told Ahmed “Right now I can’t imagine myself working in three films at the same time. After all the aim is not to act in just any film. People with whom I work are very important to me – I get terribly hung-up on people. But then you never know…”
It took her quite some time to bite the bait – but when she eventually did, it was a real biggie: the Ramesh Sippy directed, Dilip-Amitabh-Rakhee starrer Shakti.
On schedule, the press got into the act accusing her resistance to commercial cinema as “Dramabaazi” and a “Façade”. She was furious. “Look, I am lousy at names but there have been quite a few offers from established banners & directors. One of them was with Salim-Javed, but I refused. I agreed to do Shakti because it’s a good role and I’ll be working with accomplished artistes like Dilip Kumar, Amitab and Rakhee. And I like Ramesh Sippy. He is a good director. You must understand that I am not a Phoney. I do art films because I am attached to them. To be frank, I’d love to do a few commercial films because that’s where the big money is. Film acting is the only profession in India where you are paid enormous sums of money for doing precious little. I am not a fool not to understand this. But my problem is that I am not cut out for the unnatural mode of living which working in commercial cinema entails. The schedules are so disjointed. There is no personal communications or connect and a person like me is brushed aside as a nonentity. I find all this, an insult to the individual in me…”
However, Smita headed that way, soon enough, under what must seem unfortunate circumstances. In an interesting interview later, she laid it on the line. “I remained committed to small cinema for about five years. I refused all commercial offers. Around 1977-78, the small cinema movements started picking up and they needed names. I was unceremoniously dropped out of a couple of projects. This was a very subtle thing but it affected me a lot. I told myself that here I am and I have not bothered to make money, I have turned down big, commercial offers because of my commitment to small cinema and what have I got in return? If they want names, I’ll make a name for myself. So I started and took whatever came my way…” Earlier she had stated a different reason: “I think it’s because I want to realize the experience of being exposed to a different kind of cinema – to find out what it’s all about. I think the time is right for me to enter commercial cinema. Four years ago, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, too uncertain and unsure of myself. Today, I’ve achieved a certain status, confidence a standing of sorts and treated with respect.”
On cue, arrived comparisons with her arch-rival Shabana Azmi, who had managed to superbly balance her score-card with successful commercial and meaningful art films. Shabana had always maintained that her switch to Masala Land was mainly because of the star-glitter that her name would attract for mass audiences who would (hopefully) later, flock to see her art films. Smita pooh-poohed this outright with “It’s ridiculous. I’d never make an absurd statement like that. Far from helping the small film-maker you are creating all sorts of problems, date-hassles and complications for them.”
Cast together in Arth & Mandi, Shabana ran off with all the critical hosannas, sending Smita in a tizzy.
“Critics appreciated Shabana for the roles she did in that movie – but whose was the more difficult role? Which of us is a better actress I won’t comment on; that’s for the audience to decide. However, I don’t think working with Shabana again will be a pleasant experience – unless the roles are balanced, the director is balanced and he sticks to the roles.” A clear dig at Mahesh Bhatt, who according to Smita completely changed her role, mid-way, in Arth: “I didn’t know that I was going to be made out out to be such a schizophrenic mess and disappear in the second half of the film,” she fumed.
By then, she moved across to mainline commercials and already starred with the greatest: Amitabh Bachchan (Shakti & Namak Halal). Reactions? “What’s there to say? He is a superstar. A good actor.
He keeps to himself on the sets. I keep to myself. No, I am not awed while working with him for the simple reason that I don’t see how any human being can be awed by another.” She also explained the difference in work-ethos between art and commercial cinema lucidly. “Essentially it boils down to a lack of involvement. When you are doing a single film at a stretch there is so much homogeneity, warmth and rapport between crew, cast and unit members. So much team-spirit, sincerity and truth.
Over here, you’ve got to keep switching on and off. You are handed the script only when you are on the set: It can get quite depressing. Anyway I guess, it’s okay if you take it in the right spirit. I do.” She sure did and starred in several pot-boilers. Initially her embarrassment at mouthing corny dialogues, wearing crazy costumes & striking inane poses showed, but soon her hard-core professionalism smoothened them out. In time she was accepted by the commercial film-makers and from Raj Khosla & Ramesh Sippy to B.R Chopra, they all admitted that she was “Excellent”. Her fans, too, grew with her new-found stardom…
The only Asian cine-star who had the unique honour of a Retrospective in Paris and La Rochelle (at the promptings of no less a film luminary than Director Costa Gavras), a two-time Best Actress award winner at the National Film Festival (Bhumika and Chakra), a Padmashri as well as a devoted wife and brand new mother, Smita Patil had everything going her way before the ironic final cut spliced her life from sight to memory.
And the loss, 33 years on, remains, irrevocably, ours…