Among the many nuggets in Maithili Rao’s Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence, one concerns Girish Karnad in Nishant. Set in a feudal setting, this 1975 art-house classic from Shyam Benegal launched Smita Patil on a film career that no one knew would be tragically short, yet legendary in scope and impact. Karnad, who stars with Shabana Azmi in Nishant, highlights a scene in which Patil is shown performing a Tulsi puja. According to A Brief Incandescence, that was the moment he “knew a star was born.” However, watching Nishant again hardly registers the scene Smita Patil, with its raw intensity, smoky presence and natural aptitude for acting, still makes a strong impression. There’s another breakout name in this movie. A newcomer Naseeruddin Shah plays her husband. As well as Shah and Patil, who both started out as parallel cinema darlings before cavorting with his more glamorous cousin Bollywood, the cast also includes Amrish Puri, Shabana Azmi, Mohan Agashe, Anant Nag and Kulbhushan Kharbanda.
In that repertoire of talent that has dominated the landscape of Hindi art cinema, Patil was just a comet. But the story of one of India’s most seminal film movements would be incomplete without Patil’s short-lived genius. The actress died at the age of 31. She left a powerful legacy that we are still discussing, debating and unwrapping more than two decades after her death. Her films made room for feminist interventions and served as a template for each succeeding generation of actors. From Tabu to Radhika Apte, all of Bollywood’s edgy radicals have one thing in common – Smita Patil‘s fiercely independent voice, brazen defiance of convention and unparalleled intensity crowns each of her performances.
These are surprising achievements for an actress who didn’t go to film school, never dreamed of an acting career and, with her unconventional looks, might not even have been cut out for the big screen. That should tell you something about this former Marathi newsreader – she may have reluctantly loved the camera, but the camera loved her instantly. Once under the arc lights, she transformed into “an compelling presence that every actor aspires to” and is seldom matched, as her mentor Shyam Benegal notes in A Brief Incandescence.
Patil was born on October 17, 1955 and had trained in theater as a teenager in her hometown of Pune. No wonder, since one can see the intuitive rhythms and the intellectual rigor of the stage in her cinematic acting. As Hindi films beckoned, she opted for parts that attempted to realistically portray a woman’s “inner strength” (check out her wonderful vintage interview in Prasar Bharti, available on YouTube), rather than portraying them as either black or white to present, a cliche very favored by formulas Bollywood. In a fleeting but highly eclectic career of authentic magic and hypnotic rootedness, she has played roles that would have been an actor’s dream – Bhumika’s vulnerable but resilient actress Usha, Jait Re Jait’s fiery tribal, desire-on-the-mouth, Mirch Masala’s rebellious Sonbai, Manthan’s feisty Bindu and her touching if unspoken attachment to a veterinarian hoping to bring a white revolution to her caste-torn Gujarati village, Gaman’s Khairun, who endlessly awaits her immigrant husband, Chakra’s badass portrait a young mother in Bombay slum, Ardh Satya’s sensitive professor, torn between her love for a policeman (Om Puri) and her reservations about police brutality and corruption, Umbarthas Sulabha, who must overcome her family’s objection to a career outside marriage to strive for, Bazaar’s haunting Na jma and arth’s other wife to name a few.
Any writer would be in a dilemma if asked to select the ultimate Smita Patil compilation in a filmography full of unforgettable roles. But here are five of our favorite Smita Patil movie moments, giving a glimpse into her potent combination of uncharted intensity and endearing charm.
Bhumika’s (1977) Climax: Usha’s daughter confesses that she is pregnant
Smita Patil plays an actress, Usha, whose personal life is a mess. Trying to escape from an abusive marriage (“common man” Amol Palekar in a great antihero story), she takes refuge in a series of relationships that end in conflict. Still, there is a bond that needs to be both healed and made. In a tragic twist, her daughter returns at the climax to announce she is pregnant. Usha’s first instinct is to suspect that this is a cruel replay of her own life, but is soon relieved to discover that her little girl is happily married. Now all Usha has to do is deal with her own nagging loneliness. Not surprisingly, Maithili Rao describes Bhumikas Usha in her biography as “the role of her life”.
Kya main pagal lagti hun – Arth (1982)
It should be obvious to any viewer that Pooja is Arth’s focal point and the film is nothing more than a gripping melodrama designed to show Shabana Azmi’s dramatic ebb and flow. But this fictional biopic about Mahesh Bhatt is also an ode to Smita Patil. While Bhatt’s turbulent affair with Parveen Babi and her struggle with mental health is a selfish interpretation, the film also reflects Patil’s own private life – her highly publicized marriage to Raj Babbar. Patil’s confrontations with screen rival Shabana Azmi — these two powerhouses were so intertwined in the public consciousness that “I feel like I could be Shabana Patil and she could be Smita Azmi,” Azmi told FirstPost.com — absolutely captivating to watch.
Urban personality versus rural vocation in Akaler Shanthaney (1982)
In Mrinal Sen’s film-within-a-film, Patil is cast as an actress again – this time as a poetry-quoting urbanite who ends up in a village to shoot a film about the Great Bengal Famine. The meta-narrative more than winks at Patil’s own status as a toast to the art house. The gulf between Patil’s urban persona and the rural woman she must project onto screen becomes ever more apparent. Early on, Patil gives a colleague advice that should be a lesson to any aspiring actor — “Act well and people will adore you.”
The ultimate song moment with sizzling rain in Namak Halaal (1982)
While Patil’s name is rightly remembered for his contribution to parallel cinema, she was also an integral part of commercial Bollywood, shaking legs with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty. Though Namak Halaal is a Big B comic ride through and through – Bachchan’s phunny English “that Angrez can outrun” is still hilarious to watch after all these decades – Patil’s rain-soaked Aaj rapat jaayein tops the charts in terms of sex appeal on. I wonder if the trajectory of 1970s-80s Hindi cinema would have been different if only this goddess in white had acted in more such mainstream cuisine.
The haunting still image at the end in Mirch Masala (1987)
This masterpiece by Ketan Mehta makes a compelling case for the power of feminist hope. Few can forget Sonbai’s (Patil) searing face in the final moments after she and the village women defeat the oppressor armed with nothing but red chili powder. What makes Mirch Masala’s triumph even sweeter (or frostier) is that it happens to be the great performer’s swan song. Patil died in 1986 from complications related to childbirth. What a pity! The loss is ours.