On her 55th Birthday Recollecting SMITA PATIL

At a time when Bollywood was holding Hope ’86’, labelled the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ to raise funds, her untimely death shook not only the film industry but also Hindi cine goers across the globe. Much to the shock and dismay of many, writing for the bestselling daily in Mumbai the writer said it was not natural death, but a suicide. She was barely 31 when she slipped into coma due to post-childbirth complication within days of delivering a boy, technically out of wedlock, the upcoming star, Prateek Babbar. It was suicide because she had been warned against childbirth, thanks to an intestinal hemorrhage she had suffered while working, living amongst tribals during the shooting of a film. Her last known and a memorable one at that, film was Waaris (88) for which Rekha eventually lent her voice.

                A literature graduate from Bombay University, her first assignment was Arun Khopkar’s FTII diploma film Teevra Madhyam (1974) when barely 19. But the credit for introducing her on the Hindi screen rightly goes to Shyam Benegal who, impressed with her impressive presence as a Marathi newscaster on the small screen, first cast her in a small role in Charandas Chor (74), and then Nishant (75) and Manthan (76) in quick succession. The rest is history. Her last release, posthumously, was Galiyon ka Badshaah (89). She received the National Award for her performance in the mentor’s Bhumika in which she played the role of a Marathi stage actress. She had been awarded Padma Shri in 1985. She traversed the delicate dividing line between art and mainstream cinema with great aplomb, like none other before or after her. Other notable starrers, amongst others, included Mand (83), Haadsa (83), Umbartha (82), Bazaar (82), Namak Halal, Dard Ka Rishta, Arth (82), Bhavni Bhavai, Chakra, Shakti, Sadgati (81), Mirch Masala (85), Aakrosh (80), Bhavani Bhavai, Chakra (81) {National Award}, and Mrinal Sen’s Alaker Sandaney (80). In Akaler Sandhaney, she played two divergent roles. One that of a helpless poor villager who has to sacrifice her modesty to save her famished son, and the other that of herself the actress in the film within film.

                Almost all her performances were power-packed. As a person Smita, both literally and metaphorically, represented a two-dimensional image, and that helped her essay any role with conviction, be it a mainstream film like, for instance, Namak Halal or art-house one like Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha in Marathi or Subah (82) in Hindi which brought her in touch with the famous French filmmaker Costa-Gavras, leading to the first retrospective of an Indian actor in France. She symptomised the modern liberated as well as a suppressed rustic rural woman with a rare finesse, like no other heroine of the Hindi screen. Her expressions demonstrated both vulnerability and defiance. And that was why she looked equally convincing in all her performances.

                In the last four years of her life, the slim dusky ghatan was at her finest doing both commercial as well as serious films with ease. While on the one hand she was doing Namak Halal (82), Shakti (82), Anand aur Anand (84), Mera Dost Mera Dushman, Ghulami (85), Ghungroo, Aaj ki Awaaz (84), Dard ka Rishta (83) {under the influence of lover Raj Babbar, it was widely speculated because her remaining oeuvre in this department is largely despicable. Once when this writer teasingly told her, on the sets of one of her films, she was looking like a hooker, she smilingly replied anyone of my complexion would under six layers of grease paint.} on the other were films like Shyam Benegal’s Mandi and Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (83), Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (84), G Aravindan’s Chidambaram (85) and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (85) where she once again gave a sterling performance, not that Ardh Satya or Chakra were any less. In Mandi (83), like the earlier Arth (82), she competed with arch rival, Shabana Azmi for screen presence and even though the other one had meatier roles in both the films, she stood out as no-less a performer. Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (81) was her ultimate triumph as an actress. Apart from Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Smita Patil also featured in Anugrahan (Telegu), Anveshane (Kannada) and G Aravindan’s Chidambaram (Malayalam). Bazaar was another milestone film, so also Raavan (84) in a different sort of way

                Talking about her performance as a faithful determined woman in Mirch Masala, Rita Kempsky wrote 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 favourably with Akira Kurosawa’s admittedly more elegant samurai movies.” But while it was, indeed, a sterling performance, for this writer (and Jabbar Patel agrees) it will always be the Sulabha of Umbartha or Subah, a role she probably most identified herself with as the manager of an ashram for destitute women, and their exploitation by the management. The manner in which she brings a variety of emotions on her face when returning after two years she finds her husband involved with another woman, and her daughter a complete stranger. The climatic sense in which she boards a train for an unknown destination was not only memorable, but breathtaking. No other heroine could have bettered that shot alone, leave aside the rest.

                It is one’s considered opinion that no artiste is replaceable. Everyone comes with his own chair, and when he fades or goes away he/she takes that piece of furniture along. Smita Patil was a great performer, and a loveable human being something which one can’t really say about many others in the good bad world of Bollywood. Very few have risen above the ‘I, Me, Myself’ syndrome. Smita Patil was once such woman and, therefore, irreplaceable. The only consolation is that when one looks at her son’s Prateek’s face, the close resemblance makes a shrill run down the spine.

                Unfortunately, nothing seemingly substantial has been done in her memory. Meera Dewan did attempt a documentary posthumously but it remains buried somewhere in the back rooms of Films Division. In 1996, Smita Patil Charitable Trust founded a co-educational Public School in Shirpur, Dhule District (Maharashtra) under the chairmanship of Shivaji Rao Girdhar Patil (a former MP) to provide English medium education to rural young.

By Suresh Kohli

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