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Smita Patil was Raw Stock and Rare Appeal

Coastweek -- 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.

 

 
  Coastweek -- Smita Patil.

Her dusky beauty and large eyes drew attention.

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 posthumously.

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 Benegal.

After he cast her in the children’s film Charandas Chor [1975], and in a small role in Nishant [1975], Smita seemed to suddenly hold a monopoly over Benegal.

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 [1977], 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 [1977].

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!

 

 
  Coastweek -- 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 around her.

Chitra Palekar, prominent in experimental theatre, recalls a subdued Smita who was respectful of older people “like a good middle class Maharashtrian girl.”

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.

 

 
 

Coastweek -- 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 [1980], where she played a tribal woman who is brutally raped and murdered.

She worked with Satyajit Ray in his television film Sadgati [1981].

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 [1978], Mrinal Sen’s Bengali film Akaler Sandhaney [1980] and Ketan Mehta’s much acclaimed debut in Gujarati cinema, Bhavni Bhavai [1980].

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 [1982] 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 her fans.

 

 
 

Coastweek -- Naseerudin Shah and Smita Patil in a screen test for Gandhi.

Her peripheral roles in Badle Ki Aag, Dil-e-Nadaan and Qayamat were a waste of raw stock and her rare appeal.

Smita had qualms about going the whole commercial hog (lore has it that she cried after shooting Aaj rapat jaaye).

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 films’ arena.

So when the two were pitted opposite each other in Arth [1983], 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 Haasan.

Smita had that rare ability to stand out even in a supporting role - witness Nihalani’s Ardh Satya [1983], the 1984 hit Aaj Ki Awaaz and J P Dutta’s Ghulami [1985].

By the mid-1980s Smita was regularly paired with Rajesh Khanna -Aakhir Kyon [1985], Amrit [1986] and Nazrana [1987] -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.

 

 
 

Coastweek -- 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 [1987].

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 Poonam Dhillon.

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 around people.

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 you know?’

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 it.’

‘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 letters.

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