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A blazing talent remembered

On December 13, 1986, Smita Patil breathed her last. Sixteen years later, some of her performances can still bring tears to our eyes. As in life, so in death. Truly she remains ours, says MONOJIT LAHIRI in this tribute.

In "Nishant", Smita showed her artistic worth.

WHEN SMITA Patil breathed her last on the midnight of December 13, 1986, Indian cinema lost a unique talent.

Starting out in the early Seventies (1974) with Shyam Benegal's "Charandas Chor" — a first for both — she soon developed into an actress of great intuitive talent and artistic worth. Her dusky, smouldering, earthy looks, coupled with her histrionic voltage, made her one of the stars of the New Cinema that was blitzing the screen and consciousness of a newer and more perceptive audience. Along with Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, she formed the most potent quartet representing the parallel cinema. "Manthan", "Bhoomika", "Chakra", "Albert Pinto", "Aakrosh".... she was there, everywhere, with those fiery looks, sensuous body and blazing talent, sufficiently impressing renowned American critic Elliott Stein: "At 25 Smita is clearly the queen of Indian parallel cinema, as much an icon for film-makers of the milieu as was Anna Karina for young directors in France at the outset of their new wave. Patil is not a classic beauty but the lady glows. She never makes a false move on screen."

Daughter of a minister and a committed social worker, Smita Patil came into the world of movies via the `box'. A Marathi newsreader for Bombay TV, she was spotted by Shyam Benegal and cast in "Charandas Chor". "She had a presence which I felt could be well utilised in cinema,'' recalls Benegal. The director's prediction proved on-target and that is how "Manthan" came about — the film in which both the Benegal discoveries — Shabana and Smita — shared the frame for the first time, triggering off a long and eventful love-hate relationship, while providing unending grist to the film gossip mill.

"Manthan" shot her into public focus but it was the heroine-oriented "Bhoomika" that brought her into the limelight, fetching her the first of her two Best Actress awards and inviting applause.

Jaya Bachchan was sufficiently impressed by her presence to describe it as something that ``makes you sit up and take notice. Her reflexes are uninhibited and she has a face with tremendous mobility''. Instantly the big question was: Would she or wouldn't she join the commercial bandwagon? On cue, the masalawallahs lined up outside her door but the actress had apprehensions and didn't seem ready. She said: ``Right now I can't imagine myself working in three films at the same time. After all the aim is not to act in just any film. People with whom I work are very important to me — I get terribly hung-up on people. But then you never know...''

It took her quite some time to bite the bait — but when she eventually did, it was a real biggie: "Shakti".

Accused of faking disinterest, she said: ``Look, I am lousy at names but there have been quite a few offers from established banners and directors. One of them was with Salim-Javed, but I refused. I agreed to do "Shakti" because it's a good role and I will be working with good artistes like Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Rakhee. And I like Ramesh Sippy. He is a good director. You must understand that I am not phoney. I do art films because I am attached to them. To be frank I'd love to do a few commercial films because that's where the big money is. Film acting is the only profession in India where you are paid enormous sums of money for doing precious little. I am not a fool not to understand this. But I am not cut out for the unnatural mode of living which working in commercial cinema entails. The schedules are so disjointed. There is no personal communication. A person like me is brushed aside as a nonentity. I find all this an insult to the individual in me... ''

But Smita headed that way, soon enough, under what must seem unfortunate circumstances. ``I remained committed to small cinema for about five years. I refused all commercial offers. Around 1977-78, the small cinema movement started picking up and they needed names. I was unceremoniously dropped from a couple of projects. This was a very subtle thing but it affected me a lot. I told myself that here I am and I have not bothered to make money. I have turned down big, commercial offers because of my commitment to small cinema and what have I got in return? If they want names I'll make a name for myself. So I started and took whatever came my way...''

Earlier she had stated a different reason. ``I think it's because I was to realise the experience of being exposed to a different kind of cinema — to find out what it's all about. I think the time is right for me to enter commercial cinema. Four years ago I wasn't in the right frame of mind, too uncertain and unsure of myself. Today, I've achieved a certain status.''

On cue arrived comparisons with her archrival Shabana Azmi, who had managed to superbly balance her scorecard with successful commercial and meaningful art films. Shabana had always maintained that her switch to commercial films was mainly because of the star-glitter, that her name would attract mass audiences who would (hopefully) later flock to see her art films. Smita pooh-poohed this outright with ``it's ridiculous!''

Cast together in "Arth" and "Mandi", Shabana ran off with all the critical hosannas, sending Smita in a tizzy: ``Critics appreciated Shabana for the roles she did in those movies — but whose was the more difficult role? I don't think working with Shabana again will be a pleasant experience unless the roles are balanced, the director is balanced and he sticks to the roles''. A clear dig at Mahesh Bhatt, who, according to Smita, completely changed her role mid-way in "Arth".

``I didn't know that I was going to be made out to be such a schizophrenic mess and disappear in the second half of the film,'' she fumed.

By then she had moved across to mainline commercials and already starred with the greatest: Amitabh Bachchan — "Shakti" and "Namak Halal".

Initially her embarrassment at mouthing corny dialogues, wearing crazy costumes and striking inane poses showed, but soon her hard-core professionalism smoothened them out. In time she was accepted by commercial filmmakers and from Raj Khosla and Ramesh Sippy to B.R. Chopra, they all agreed that she was "excellent". Her fans, too, grew with her newfound stardom.

Her association and subsequent marriage to Raj Babbar, however, clouded her personal life and threw her in the eye of a storm.

Overnight Smita got the unkind tag of "home breaker" and was at the receiving end of volleys of barbed criticism.

Did she practise what she preached? It was a nightmare for both Smita and Raj and looking back it was ultimately her dignified silence and restraint that becalmed those troubled times. Ushering in hope for a promising, new future... but that was not to be.

The only Asian cine-star who had the unique honour of a Retrospective in Paris and La Rochelle (at the promptings of no less a film luminary than director Costa Gavras), a two-time best actress award winner at the National Film Festival, a Padma Shree as well as a devoted wife and brand new mother, Smita Patil had every thing going her way, before the ironic final cut spliced her life from sight to memory. And the loss, even today, remains, irrevocably, ours....

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