Hard-hitting, gritty, feminist, serious, realist cinema – when you think of Smita Patil, these are some of the words that immediately come to mind. An icon of India’s parallel or New Wave cinema, Smita Patil was known for her roles in incredibly powerful films, such as Manthan, Mandi, Bazaar, Ardh Satya, Nishant, Bhumika, Aakrosh, in which her colleagues typically included Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Girish Karnad — also people known for their contribution to ‘art films’.
She isn’t who one would instinctively think of as a mainstream actor. But the thing about Smita Patil was that she was not one to be put in a box. Just when audiences thought they knew exactly what to expect from a film starring her, she surprised everyone with her ability to do pure commercial fare, something she had earlier shunned.
In an interview, Patil recalled how she “remained committed to small cinema for about five years. I refused all commercial offers. Around 1977-78, the small cinema movements started picking up and they needed names. I was unceremoniously dropped out of 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…”
While the circumstances of her move to doing more Bollywood potboilers may not have been the most pleasant, there can be no denying that popular cinema would be much poorer without her presence. Take, for example, 1985’s Aakhir Kyon?, in which she acted with Rakesh Roshan, Tina Munim and the original superstar of Bollywood, Rajesh Khanna. It could hardly get more mainstream than that, yet it is Patil who is so incredibly at ease in her author-backed role that you cannot look at anyone else.
It is also an interesting film because while it is very much a feminist story, it is a different kind of feminism from the kind in Patil’s earlier films, one that’s quiet and subtle and grows gradually.
All these reasons make Aakhir Kyon? a great movie to watch on Smita Patil’s birth anniversary.
The story of a married woman’s search for her own identity
The movie begins at the launch of the 50th book by acclaimed novelist Asha Shri, the pen name of Nisha Sharma (played by Patil). This book tells her own story, which is what unfolds as the movie, in flashback.
Nisha is an orphan who lives with her aunt and uncle, and their daughter, Indu (Tina Munim). While Nisha is quiet, submissive and always helpful in the kitchen, the younger Indu is brash and outrageously flirtatious. At a friend’s wedding, Indu develops a crush on the groom’s wealthy friend Kabir (Rakesh Roshan), but he, noticing Nisha’s more traditional ways, decides to ask for her hand in marriage. Not because he’s in love with her, but because he believes that is how a wife should be. For him, a wife is basically someone who can keep him satisfied in bed, a glorified housekeeper in the rest of the house and a trophy wife outside the house.
Nisha, not knowing all of this, accepts his proposal, while Indu is heartbroken by what she sees as her sister’s treachery, even though both sisters had only met Kabir once, and Nisha had done nothing to encourage him.
Alarm bells start ringing very soon after their marriage, when Kabir, showing Nisha around his palatial house, tells her she is now no longer the ‘inconsequential’ Nisha Sharma, but the very important Mrs Kabir Suri. He says it casually, without even realising there is anything wrong, and without even seeing the look on Nisha’s face.
While Nisha strives to be the model wife, Kabir continues his affairs with other women, and during a Holi party, he and Indu flirt with each other endlessly. When Nisha gets pregnant, Indu immediately offers to move in with them, ostensibly as a caretaker for her cousin, and Kabir enthusiastically decides she will. No one has asked Nisha what she wants. Soon enough, Indu and Kabir start sleeping together, while Nisha is confined to the ground floor, due to a complicated pregnancy.
When Nisha, who has been increasingly uncomfortable with Indu’s presence, finds out about the affair, she is heartbroken. She tries to take her newborn daughter and move out, but Kabir won’t let her take the baby, so she leaves alone. She takes shelter at the same women’s support centre she had once, as Mrs Kabir Suri, made a rousing speech at, and in time, gets a job as a Doordarshan news anchor.
During the course of her work, she meets videographer Alok (Rajesh Khanna) whose cheery demeanour and constant one-liners put her at ease and she finally finds her groove, eventually becoming an acclaimed writer — one who is in a position to save her estranged husband’s floundering business and enable her daughter’s wedding.
A different kind of feminism
When pared down to the bare essentials of plot, it seems as though Nisha is instinctively hardcore and will have no qualms walking out on a cheating husband. But that is not the case. She is not naturally confrontational, and she spends much of the movie in tears, even begging Kabir to not behave as he has been. But that’s where this movie scores — in how beautifully it shows her transformation and growth. And in how sensitively it shows that shedding tears doesn’t make one weak.
At one point, a surprised Kabir even says to her that he had never known her to utter a word, and she responds that she was busy being a wife, his wife. It’s a stinging slap in the face, because what she’s really saying is that he never knew her anyway. Shy and quiet are not synonyms for weak or lacking a mind of one’s own, and Kabir, with his narrow view of what women are supposed to be, never realised that.
Nisha is constantly surrounded by men who love to make decisions for her, including Alok, who is far more respectful of her wishes but still rather pushy. But while she doesn’t shout and scream from rooftops, she is clear and firm about always making her own decisions. It’s not the gritty activist sort of feminism seen in some of other films, but it is equally effective.