There is something about dying young
that perpetuates fame.
Witness the icon industry that has
sprung around Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.
Or Meena Kumari (who passed away at
40), or Madhubala (who died at 36).
Then there is Smita Patil who passed
away in 1986 at the shockingly young age of 31.
The actress who was a fascinating
amalgam of a steel-strong will as well as heart-tugging
vulnerability, deserves the ‘amazing actress’ legend
that has been built around her.
Smita was the daughter of a minister
and a social-worker mother.
Born in Pune, Maharashtra, she studied
at a Marathi medium school.
Her first tryst with the camera was as
a television newscaster.
Her dusky beauty and large eyes drew
Always a bit of a rebel, she would
grin when people complimented her on looking lovely in the saris
she sported for the telecasts because minutes before going on
air, she would have hurriedly wrapped the sari over her jeans.
Smita shared a special relationship
with the camera and, incidentally, she was very good behind the
camera too: an exhibition of photographs clicked by her was held
One of the major beneficiaries of the
mid-1970s efflorescence of the art movement in Hindi cinema,
Smita’s film career got off the ground courtesy mentor Shyam
After he cast her in the children’s
film Charandas Chor , and in a small role in
Nishant , Smita seemed to suddenly hold a monopoly
For a while, she even seemed to have
won him away from Shabana Azmi, with whom the filmmaker
had done some excellent work in Ankur and Nishant.
Smita sprang to the spotlight with
Benegal’s Manthan , where she played a Harijan
woman who spearheads a revolt at the milk co-operative.
Next, Benegal cast her in a more
demanding role --- Bhumika .
A fictionalised biography of Indian
actress Hansa Wadkar, Bhumika won Smita the National
Award for Best Actress. Smita played the complex role of
an actress struggling to lead her life on her own terms
(through her chequered history with four men --- Amol
Palekar, Anant Nag, Naseeruddin Shah and Amrish Puri)
and imbued it with an insight that belied her 22 years!
Chakra (1981) - Directed by Rabindra Dharmaraj, ‘Chakra’
is about Amma (Smita Patil) and her son Benwa and their
struggle to survive in a Bombay slum.
People who did not know Smita well
found her reticent and shy.
If she was in the company of older and
more established people in the arts, the bindaas Smita retreated
into a quiet observer, absorbing the swirling conversation
Chitra Palekar, prominent in
experimental theatre, recalls a subdued Smita who was
respectful of older people “like a good middle class
Chitra still cannot get over Smita’s
reaction after the special preview of Bhumika for the
cast and crew (Chitra was married to Amol Palekar then).
Smita stood aside, crestfallen,
shrinking into herself, saying, ‘I was so bad in the
film.’ And then she goes on to win a National Award for
the same role!
But this is no case of false, put-on
modesty, according to Anita.
Smita did feel that she did not give a
good performance, and her mother’s repeated criticism
only added to her low self-confidence at this point.
Raj Babbar and Smita Patil.
Smita staunchly believed in realistic
cinema and accepted offers from new wave directors like Muzaffar
Ali [Gaman, 1979] and Dharamraj [Chakra, 1981).
For the latter, she visited
jhopadpatis (slums) as part of her research and it culminated in
another National Award.
With Govind Nihalani she worked in the
scorchingly intense Aakrosh , where she played a
tribal woman who is brutally raped and murdered.
She worked with Satyajit Ray in his
television film Sadgati .
In a bid to sate her gnawing need for
good roles, Smita ventured into the regional arena too
with the Marathi movie Jait Re Jait , Mrinal Sen’s
Bengali film Akaler Sandhaney  and Ketan Mehta’s
much acclaimed debut in Gujarati cinema, Bhavni Bhavai
As long as it revealed the psyche of
her character, Smita was game to go the extra mile - she
did a bathing scene in the open for Chakra, some intense
love-making scenes in Aakrosh and even kissed Kulbhushan
Kharbanda’s toes in Arth.
In the early 1980s, Smita finally
relented and trained her sights on commercial cinema.
She won new fans with the blockbuster
Namak Halal  opposite Amitabh.
Their together item song and dance
rain number Aaj rapat jaaye showed her in an entirely
new light. Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti opposite Amitabh
followed in 1982.
At this stage, Smita’s often
indiscriminate choice of films left her as bewildered as
Naseerudin Shah and Smita Patil in a screen test for
Her peripheral roles in Badle Ki Aag,
Dil-e-Nadaan and Qayamat were a waste of raw stock and her rare
Smita had qualms about going the whole
commercial hog (lore has it that she cried after shooting Aaj
She was arguably the best in the
realistic films which she continued to encourage like Mandi (as
the prostitute who has an incestuous relationship) and Subah (as
the housewife who learns to be self-reliant).
Smita was compared ad nauseum with
Shabana Azmi, her senior and rival in the off-beat
So when the two were pitted opposite
each other in Arth , comparisons were inevitable.
Shabana had the sympathetic
author-backed role but Smita’s on-the-edge
characterisation of a guilt-ridden mistress had its fair
share of admirers, including Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal
Smita had that rare ability to stand
out even in a supporting role - witness Nihalani’s Ardh
Satya , the 1984 hit Aaj Ki Awaaz and J P Dutta’s
By the mid-1980s Smita was regularly
paired with Rajesh Khanna -Aakhir Kyon , Amrit
 and Nazrana  -and there was a noticeable
rise in her glamour quotient.
Her earlier harum scarum look segued
to her picture-perfect makeup in her popular Aakhir Kyon
song Dushman na kare.
Veteran talent - Shabana Azmi, Shyam Benegal and Smita
Patil ruled their era with much flair. The trio is seen
during the Cannes 1976, a perfect throwback to the
sweeter and simpler times. Shabana Azmi wrote how films
were more important than clothes at the festival.
A series of largely-forgettable films
and a much-discussed marriage with the much-married Raj Babbar
was an ineluctable part of this mercurial phase of Smita’s short
but eventful life and career.
Smita reteamed with Ketan Mehta to
play the fiesty and fiery Sonbai in Mirch Masala .
Smita won raves for playing a spirited
masala factory worker who holds out against a lecherous zamindar.
But before the pungent Mirch Masala
could release, Smita shocked everyone when childbirth
complications resulted in her death December 13, 1986.
She passed away even before she could
cement her relationship with her just born son, Prateek.
Her son, now a strapping teenager, is
not the only Prateek (symbol) of her memories.
Some stories that appeared soon after
her death mentioned that Smita had shared a premonition with
Meera Dewan’s documentary, Searching
for Smita (1989, Films Division), has this clip of Poonam
Dhillon recalling what Smita said: ‘I will die at thirty-one.’
Subhash Awchat narrates another eerie
story of her intuitive powers with relish.
The two had gone to Taj Hotel and they
passed by a foreigner, French perhaps, in the lobby.
Smita paused and looked at the man.
Subhash maintains that Smita saw auras
She urged Subhash to ask the stranger
if he had a recent accident that hurt his left arm and shoulder.
The surprised man said, ‘Yes, how did
After her death, Amitabh Bachchan said
on record in the interview to Lehren: ‘She had a sixth sense...
she had a premonition. I was shooting for Coolie in Bangalore. I
was staying at the West End Hotel. My association with Smita was
limited to the sets. Other than that I never made contact with
her. We never met socially.’
‘But one night, at about one, I got a
call in my room. The operator said Smita Patil wants to talk
to you. I first thought it was a prank. But then I took the
call and it was Smita.’
‘She said, “Amit-ji, I am sorry to
disturb you, but are you okay?” I said, yes, I am fine.
She said, “no I just got up and I had
a very bad dream. I just wanted to call you and find out if
you were okay.” She was on location somewhere. And that was
‘Next morning I had my accident. It
was just unbelievable. Throughout the two or three months I
was in the ICU, she was a regular visitor. When I came home,
she would come every evening and enquire about me. I can
never forget that.’
‘She was a unique lady.’
Smita has left behind a rich haul of
films that showcase her enormous ability to offer us a glimpse
into her soul each time she performed a role.
She had a short career span and yet 29
years after she passed away, parallel cinema in India will never
be mentioned without Smita Patil’s name emblazoned in golden