As a star struck child growing up in Mumbai, then Bombay in the 1980’s, my favorite past time – if not pouring over those filmy glossies which I sneakily laid my hands on, was staring out at the ‘larger than life’ cutouts of film stars, staring down at you, from Juhu Beach to Victoria Terminus Station. So from the oomphy, dressed to kill images of Parveen Babi to Zeenat Aman to the perfectly coiffured Rekha and Hema Malini, and then you had the very real life images of Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, their film posters looking grim and very serious to my ten-year-old eyes.
Smita Patil, one of the poster girls of the Indian Parallel Cinema Movement, a time when ‘mainstream Indian cinema’ portrayed women as the ‘adarshwadi bhartiya naari’ or the western influenced or ‘good girl gone bad vamp’, Smita Patil was what you call the antithesis, she was not the whimpering victim, nor was she happy being the hero’s arm candy, she portrayed strong characters, confident in her feminine self and in full command with her powerful performances.
The year 1982 and my first introduction to Smita Patil was with Namak Halal, I was not allowed to watch Arth, the reason given, ‘It’s not for kids’, end of story, since we didn’t have Netflix or Amazon Prime or access to smart phones back in the day, the content was monitored by parents and theaters took ‘U and A’ censor certificates seriously.
So, obviously it was Parveen Babi, her outfits, shimming away to ‘Raat Baaki’, that had me enthralled and Amitabh Bachchan’s comedy, I saw her next in the Dilip Kumar – Amitabh Bachchan starrer Shakti, but I discovered Smita Patil the actor, a path-breaker, not until her death at 31 in 1986.
As Doordarshan announced her untimely demise at 31 due to complications during child birth, my teen self still as star struck, was intrigued. Obituaries tend to do that, they make you curious about the person and when it’s a tragically untimely death such as Smita Patil’s, it makes you wonder what could have been, who was this person, who in her short life span, had made such an impact.
I revisited Arth, where she is seen as Kavita, the other woman, the delusional film-star obsessed with the much married filmmaker. A role inspired by another actress, who was in a real life situation with the director who made it, Smita Patil was raw, she made you hate her, the heart always goes out to the one wronged, in this case, the wife, but you end up feeling sorry for the other woman, whose strong self is just an eye wash. She is an insecure, fractured woman, looking for love and fighting her demons.
This was followed by Mirch Masala, one of her last films. The feisty Sona Bai, who is the object of a tyrannical subedar’s affections, takes him on and motivates the women of her village to stand up strong against the sex predator. Her flaming eyes, defiance to not succumb to patriarchy or tyranny. The back drop of the chilli factory blends into a fiery narrative.
Much before Bollywood actresses started talking about feminism and taking on films which spoke about ‘what women want’, their needs and desire, celebrating their imperfections, their flaws and their femininity, Smita Patil had already played such parts.
Bhumika, Shyam Benegal’s narrative on a woman entrapped in her quest for a perfect relationship, love and fulfillment saw Smita Patil as Usha, a woman who questions her sexual confinement, a woman who wants to break out from the shackles of dependency to being independent. The role won her the national award for best actress and rightly so.
Her face with either minimal or devoid of make-up most times, which many actors now describe as being bold, was the norm with her. Her eyes and expressive face lit up the screen, she was comfortable in her own skin, her coffee colour tone was never once lightened or touched up for the sake of appearances, she was a woman who was proud to be herself.
I loved her in Bazaar, as Najma, who lives for love, unable to marry the man she loves and on a war path with her own family – she is on a cross road. Things take a turn for the worse when she destroys her so called brother’s dreams for her own sake. Bazaar highlighted the plight of bride-buying. Set in Hyderabad, it came with the most melodious soundtrack.
Smita Patil as a woman trapped in an abusive marriage in Manthan, a film presenting the white revolution, the history of Amul and the struggle of daily wage earners, she was a picture of strength. Then you had her as Amma as Charka, an immigrant who lives in a slum, bringing up her teenage son who she wants to stay on the right side of the law, whilst he wants to emulate the local dada. The drama plays out, remember the posters of the film of Smita Patil as Amma publicly bathing, but that was her, an earthy actor who slipped into her character with utmost ease, raw and edgy. The film won her her second national award.
The world is a market place and each one of us comes with a price, was the tag line of Mandi, set against a brothel, the film was called a “spirited romp which examines female sexuality and its commodification by patriarchy”. Smita Patil was Zeenat, a singer who is whimsical and knows to survive in the space that she is in, it does not pay to be consistent.
The unforgettable Smita Patil, a trailblazer, who brought real life issues on screen and remained as real off it as well.