When she was good, she was very, very good

Remembering Smita Patil on her 60th birth anniversary.

Updated - November 26, 2021 10:26 pm IST

Published - October 16, 2015 02:54 pm IST

Her eyes spoke for her: Smita Patil in Bhumika

Her eyes spoke for her: Smita Patil in Bhumika

She wasn’t a glamorous doll like Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi or Hema Malini who grabbed movies — and headlines — with a wiggle of their sequin-draped hips.

Smita Patil’s appeal lay in her elegant bones and her fine eyes. This one-time TV newsreader had every ‘parallel’ or ‘art’ filmmaker lining up to sign her, usually along with stalwarts such as Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, and others.

She began her career with Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor (1974) and determinedly stuck with ‘serious’ cinema for about five years, with stellar roles in Benegal’s Bhumika (1977), for which she won her first National Award. She refused all commercial offers. She said, “I know I want to act in good films. But good directors are so difficult to come by. I hope I don’t get pushed into doing commercial films because, truly, that will be the end of Smita Patil!” She shone in movies like Manthan (1976), Jait Re Jait (1977, Marathi) and Umbartha (1982, Marathi), Mandi (1983) and Mirch Masala (1987). But Arth (1982) was, perhaps, her best-known film. She played the other woman, Kavita. She was pitted against the amazing Shabana Azmi, and yet she held her own.

Then she decided that to change track because “The small cinema movement started picking up and they needed names. 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 took whatever came my way.” These included potboilers like Dard Ka Rishta , Namak Halaal and Shakti (all 1982). During an interview with Filmfare in 1985, she was asked how she fit into the commercial ambit, she replied, “There are very few actresses who can look young and do mature roles as well. Shabana and me, baaki koi hai nahin . So whenever you need to look dignified in a mature role, you put a little grey in your hair and there you are.”

But she was staunch in her dislike for such movies, even if they got her name up on the marquee and made her the money she wanted to live a good life after retirement.

A supporter of women’s rights and one who spoke her mind and lived her life the way she wanted to, Smita often had to speak lines that were astonishingly regressive onscreen. Consider this: Naari ka doosra naam seva hi toh hai (after all, a woman’s other name is service) from Namak Halaal (1982), a film in which where she stood straight and silent as Amitabh Bachchan pranced around her singing ‘Pag ghunghroo bandh Meera naache’.

But Smita was unfazed by criticism. “I don’t have to prove my credentials any more. I’d rather be more adventurous than be consistently safe and good and boring. If I’m good all the time, my performance will become technical and mechanical and clinical.”

When she was good, she was very, very good, even though she did not fit the stereotype of female actors in Bollywood at that time. She bagged a series of awards— from National Awards for Bhumika (1977) and Chakra (1980) to seven Filmfare Awards and a Padma Shri in 1985.

On May 3, 2013, 27 years after she died, India Post released a postage stamp in her honour as part of the 100 years of Indian cinema celebration.

On the sets of Bheegi Palken (1982), she met Raj Babbar and they worked together in films like Jawaab and Mera Ghar Mere Bachche (1985), Teesra Kinara and Dahleez (1986). “Our first meeting ended in a sort of clash that laid the foundation of a relationship,” Babbar has said. It was not an easy time for Smita. Babbar was already married but, his wife Nadira was accepting of this: “If she makes him happy then I am happy too.” Sadly, the great romance did not last very long. Two weeks after her son Prateik was born, she died of childbirth complications on December 13, 1986.

Perhaps it is close friend Deepti Naval who has best described Smita’s view of the world in a poem. In it, she says to her friend, “ ‘There must be another way/Of living this life!’/For a long time/You remained silent/Then,/Without blinking/Without turning/Said,/‘There isn’t’.

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