A festival showcased some memorable films of the late Smita Patil

Smita Patil was always a pleasure to watch on screen. Few actors on Indian screen could match either her dusky, smouldering good looks or her intense performance. But the two-day festival of Smita's films organised recently at the Co-Operative Training College in Bangalore was interesting for more reasons that that. It was an opportunity to look back at an actor who left an indelible mark on the Indian screen before she died at 31 and place her in the context of New Wave films that coincided with her short but memorable screen reign. Smita, who started out as a newscaster, became synonymous with New Wave cinema of the Seventies and Eighties, a major turning point in cinema history.

Pungent power

The festival opened with Smita's last film Mirch Masala, which was released a year after her death in 1986. In the Ketan Mehta film she plays the fiery Sonbai who holds against the all-powerful Subedar who symbolises both the traditional feudal order and new power of the colonial masters. Sonbai becomes a pivotal symbol in a film which talks about how rebellion and the ammunition for it can spring from unexpected quarters. As Subedar's soldiers and hapless village men wait for them outside the locked door, all that a set of women trapped in a masala factory have on their side are an aging Muslim sentry and his rusty gun. That is, until they discover the other possibilities of the chilly powder that goes into the dal they cook every day.It's powerful film (especially the climax) and Smita plays the defiant Sonbai to perfection. But on second viewing, one feels that it's the character of Mukhiya's wife (played superbly by Deepti Naval) that holds your attention more for the manner in which it is carefully and slowly built from a position of helplessness into rebellion.Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya (based on Vijay Tendulkar's novel), the second film, is a nuanced portrayal of an individual in a violent, corrupt system. Om Puri is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of he angst-ridden Inspector Velankar who is caught in the quicksand of individual angst and systemic corruption and for which he won the National Award. The role of Smita Patil, which represents a counter to the corrupt system, turns out to be quite flat and uninteresting. Ardh Satya is a surprising presence in a festival meant to showcase Smita's talent.The last film on day-one of the festival was Nagabharana's Anveshane, an interesting film for the way it explores the trappings and hypocrisies of the middle-class in a format that straddles the genres of a murder mystery and a comedy. (Vijay Bhaskar's title score is typical murder mystery music!) A couple living in a vathara (Anant Nag and Smita) discover a corpse in their living room and much of the film is about how they try to get rid of it without bringing it to the notice of either the police or their nosy neighbours. The film, which ends on a Roald Dahlish note, is very unusual for Kannada. While Girish Karnad is brilliant in his cameo role as the father of an unwed mother, Anveshane again does highlight Smita's talent.Day two began with Bhumika, easily Shyam Benegal's best. It has a feminist tone like his other films Mammo, Mandi, Sardari Begum, and Zubeidaa. The film revolves around Usha (Smita), even as it subtly (very Ray-like) captures the lives of the three generations of women, each with a value system of their own. The film, based on the life of the Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, relies heavily on flashbacks, and has a linear narrative Moving back and forth from colour to splendid sepia-toned images, the gripping cinematography captures each scene in all its tension, packed with suppressed emotions. This it does, even as it unravels the complexities of the human predicament. The film has outstanding music by Vanraj Bhatia, though there is no background score apart from that. In a moral combat with all her childhood memories, Usha defies the very notion of a "respectable woman", a value that her mother deeply cherished. In fact, her defiance is so strong that she even shreds notions of sexual fidelity. Bhumika is a remarkable portrait of a woman with non-conformist beliefs, who moves on from one relationship to another, furiously trying to find her own space. Smita's vibrant performance in this complex narrative is a sure standout, but what is even more remarkable is Shyam Benegal's ability to cast so perfectly. Amrish Puri, Amol Palekar put up inspiring performances in the film. So does B.V. Karanth in his guest appearance.The next film, Manthan, is an unprecedented project even in its making. About 5,00,000 milk producers, who were part of the Gujarat milk co-operatives, became the producers of the film. Each of them contributed Rs. 2 for the film.The film talks of a village in Gujarat, a large milk producer, bogged down by politics of caste and the crafty ways of a vile businessman. When a group of urban educated men land in the village to moot the idea of a co-operative and its benefits to the poor farmers, they are met with hostility. But when they do spearhead a change, there are tremendous anxiety and misgivings even within the oppressed class itself. What is originally documentary material, something that he set out doing for Operation Flood, Shyam Benegal turns into a powerful feature film. Smita Patil is a laid-back farmer's wife and doesn't have a pivotal role to play. The last film, Giddh by T.S. Ranga, is about women forced into prostitution in the name of goddess Yellamma. The story of the film is multi-layered, talking of oppression from within the community as well as from external factors. It is a bleak film, without a ray of hope. And Smita Patil's role is pretty insipid.

Question of choice

Most films that were part of the screenings were fine films in themselves, though one wondered about the choice in the context of a festival in the name of Smita Patil, considering that her role was miniscule in films such as Manthan, Mirch Masala or Ardh Satya. Interestingly, the festival also turned out to be a Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani one, because most films had the former as director and the latter as cinematographer.One also wondered why none of Smita's better-known films such as Chakra, Mandi, Arth and her commercial films (which could have provided a counterpoint to her roles in New Wave films) were not part of the festival. The only possible explanation could be that DVD versions of these films were not available.