Of Fine Films & Finer Feminism: How Smita Patil Reinvented the Female Protagonist
Smita Patil would have been 65 today. For people like her who leave behind indelible legacies, one only wishes they’d have stayed longer to create some more. But watching and rewatching her body of work through the 12 fleeting years she was active in Indian film and theatre seems like a novel experience every time. She was just that electrifying, just that captivating, and just wholly one with her craft. Smita Patil stood apart. Even with her, what many believed, regular-looking face, the face of a common woman, she stood apart. In fact, that is precisely why she did. How many women can go to the cinemas and say they saw themselves on screen? It’s usually all show props and impossible glamour. Smita Patil waded through all that ephemeral clutter to create something bigger for her viewers. A more personal impression, something more permanent.
A prominent face of the parallel art cinema movement from the 1970s, Patil’s films were heavy with socio-political symbolism and her characters with real stuff: reflection, awareness, and boldness.
And it wasn’t all empty commentary, since, in the true sense, Patil was a staunch feminist within and without her films. An authentic consonance that made her place in cinema that much more important, and her, that much more beloved by the audience. So what better day than today, October 17, to look back on the life and times of one of the greatest actors Indian arts have ever known and re-acquaint ourselves with her incomparable genius?
Tryst With Celluloid
Patil was born in Pune in 1955 to Maharashtrian parents involved deeply in the social systems of the time, one by way of politics and the other through social work. One of three sisters, she was an emotional soul, her biography Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence suggests. Friends and family recall that Patil had even at a young age had an inclination towards the arts. She was a great mimic and somewhat of a photographer as well. She was also receiving training in music and dance.
“She was a spirited girl [who grew into a spirited woman] from the time she was born. She was basically adventurous in spirit… Smi was ruled by her heart,” her sister Anita recounts.
As a young woman, Patil worked for a bit as a young newsreader for Doordarshan, following which she was discovered by filmmaker Shyam Benegal. Benegal, alongside Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray, was one of the accelerating forces behind the New Wave of 1970s parallel cinema. And so, Patil’s tryst with Hindi celluloid began on an invigorating note with films that held social, political, and activistic value.
Her first Benegal release came in 1975 with Charandas Chor, a folk play. By this time, Patil was already a few Marathi titles old. But this Benegal venture placed her on the subconscious map of the audience, gearing her up for the avalanche of adulation that was to follow.
Reinventing The Female Protagonist
Right after, in 1976 Manthan came succeeded by Bhumika in 1977, both films definitive of her career. It’s almost as if in pre-emption of her short life, Patil was breathlessly rolling out one winner after another. Her acting was earthy, sombre; her characters always more emotive through actions than words. A telling expression on her face reflecting the turmoil of a mind that was always whirring, always in thought. These are 5 of her must-watch films.
“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 said once in 1985.
By this time, Patil figured as one in the league of a new girl gang that was fast gaining prominence on the Hindi cinema block. Patil, Shabana Azmi, and Deepti Naval, collaborators and competitors, were together emerging as poster faces of the parallel cinema art movement. A favourite both among audiences and auteur directors, these young women were tracing paths divergent from mainstream Hindi heroines.
Their fresh takes on what a female protagonist could and did do were far different from what the mainstream actresses had been doing. Save for the occasional film that gave its women screen time to exercise power in the script, Hindi films are notorious for severely objectifying women and boxing them up within varying degrees of melodrama. Few were able to break out of that mould and command their own, independent attention, based on not simply physicality, but also intelligence.
Patil, in fact, was straddling the genres of mainstream and arthouse cinema with eloquence. She could do an empowering Mirch Masala as easily as she could a commercial Namak Halaal. Among her contemporaries too, she was a popular choice. Her associated acts with theatre-seasoned veterans like Naseeruddin Shah and Girish Karnad became as successful as did her pairings opposite Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna.
Marriage And Death
She met Raj Babbar on the sets of the 1982 film Bheegi Palkein. Babbar was married at the time to Nadira Babbar and the actor-couple had two children. Recalling his first meeting with Patil, Babbar said, “Our first meeting ended in a sort of clash – a sweet clash that laid the foundation of a relationship later.”
Sure enough, Patil and Babbar soon initiated a high-profile, widely-sensationalised, passionate love affair, with the presence of a forgotten wife in the mix. Babbar eventually married his new paramour, leaving Nadira to tend to their kids alone. Patil’s role in all this became fodder for tabloid gossip and the prying public that wrote her off as a “home breaker.” As quoted in an early interview, newly married, she took a stand for herself saying, “A lot of things are not easy to understand… Besides, I’m not worried about society’s hostile glance.”
In 1986, she gave birth to a son, Prateik Babbar, who is an actor today. Unfortunately, Patil didn’t live long enough to witness him taking the baton forward. Merely two weeks after giving birth, she died from complications.
Even upon an early demise at the age of 31, Patil left behind a monument of work that post her passing, no other actor has been able to replicate in influence and range. It was a short, turbulent, meaningful life she lived – profound with a partaking of all that is urgent, from socio-political sensibilities to the upliftment of women.
She was her films, and yet, so much more, and everything beyond. There had never been one like Smita Patil before. There will never be one like her again.
Views expressed are the author’s own.