New Delhi: Indian cinema has many stars, icons, and one-hit wonders. But it has very few actors. And only one Smita Patil.
Patil was one of the very few ‘parallel cinema superstars’. A paradox of kinds, Patil was an actor known for her work in New Wave cinema, but also made a name for herself in mainstream Bollywood, thus treading that fine line between the two worlds. Her films and personality were both magnetic. Tragically, her life was cut short too soon. But she lives on through her work even today, more than three decades after her death.
Born on 17 October 1955 into a political family to Shivajirao Patil and Vidyatai Patil, Patil grew up in Pune with two siblings — a younger (Manya) and elder (Anita) sister. While she never intended to be an actor, her striking good looks and poise made her the favourite of student films in college, and even a news reader for Doordarshan in Mumbai. She was a thespian, being part of local theatre groups in Pune. She would also frequent the Film and Television Institute of India so much that many mistook her to be an alumna, but she is only an honorary graduate.
It was director Shyam Benegal who discovered her in the early 1970s, when he was struck by her face. It was an unconventional casting choice, given that Patil was dark-skinned — something that came up throughout her career.
“I have a way, I don’t know what it is… of being able to tell how people will photograph. With Smita, no one would think that she’d make a film star. A, because in India you have this bias against darker skin. It is ridiculous but that’s the way it is. We are one of the most colour-conscious people in the world. B, how does having an attractive personality translate in physical terms? That’s very difficult to understand, but sometimes you know that this person has it. I felt that from the beginning, from what I saw on TV and Khopkar’s film. I could tell that this girl would photograph brilliantly,” he said in an interview, talking about the moment he chose to cast Patil in her first film, Charandas Chor (1975).
Thus started one of Bollywood’s most illustrious and tragically short-lived careers. Patil quickly became Benegal’s favourite, doing most of his films in the 1970s and 1980s.
Charandas Chor was followed by Nishant in the same year, and then came Manthan, Bhumika, Kondura and Bazaar. Patil favoured small-budget films, with a strong storyline and a social cause. Being a champion of women’s rights and an outspoken feminist, Patil would choose roles that portrayed downtrodden yet strong and revolutionary women.
“Small cinema began with the portrayal of the real Indian woman, who happens to be very much a ‘zamin ki aurat’ … ‘mitti ki aurat’ (woman of the earth). I am continuing to do earthy roles because I am that sort of a person myself. I was fortunate that I could extend the kind of person I am to the roles that were given to me in the beginning of my career,” she had said in an interview with Reader’s Digest.
Be it a Dalit woman in Manthan, a harassed factory worker in Mirch Masala, or a woman in love with a married man in Arth, Patil had a knack for choosing strong, grey, and memorable characters.
The mainstream move
In the late 1970s, by which time she had caught the eye of not only the general Indian audience, but also more mainstream filmmakers, Patil decided to break her small film-only rule.
“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,” she said in an interview.
And she did go on to conquer the glitzy world of Bollywood, too. With iconic performances in films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Shakti, Namak Halaal, and Aakhir Kyon?, Patil proved that she was the versatile actor any filmmaker would dream of working with.
Patil definitely walked the fine line between commercial and parallel cinema with an ease that nobody had seen before. Thanks to her roles in big budget films, her work in parallel cinema was more recognised, thus introducing a wider audience to cinema they would not normally watch. She portrayed regular women and the kind of extraordinary lives they lead, giving a section of the audience someone they could relate to on a very real level for, perhaps, the first time ever.
Sadly, while she may have conquered the films part of the film industry, she could not escape the media and its lens on her personal life. She met and fell in love with actor Raj Babbar in 1981, during the making of their film Bheegi Palkein. Babbar was married at the time, and the affair stirred up a huge controversy and a lot of bad press for Patil. In her signature style, though, she shrugged it off and went on to marry him. In November of 1986, she gave birth to their son, Prateik Babbar, who is now an actor himself. A fortnight later, on 13 December, she passed away due to childbirth complications.
Patil received critical and commercial acclaim for the 70-odd films (in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Telugu, and Malayalam) she did in the decade that was her career. She is still celebrated today as one of the finest actors to have ever graced our screens. It is not only because of her brilliant talent, but because she proved to India that a regular, dark-skinned woman and her stories can be the epitome of art.