Hindi cinema is built upon many longstanding legacies, but perhaps none as definitive as the one belonging to Smita Patil. Even upon an early demise at the age of 31, she left a monument of work behind her that post her passing in 1986 no other actor has been able to replicate in influence. She is generally regarded as one of the greatest Indian actresses of all time, falling well within the league of her iconic seniors Nargis, Nutan, and Meena Kumari. Within a span of just 12 years in film and theatre, she carved such an identity for herself that went way beyond the entertainment industry.
Patil was renowned not simply for her acting finesse, but also for the transgressive roles she took on.
A dominant face of 1970s parallel cinema alongside contemporaries Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, and Deepti Naval, Smita Patil became synonymous with female characters that broke out of the cast of the mainstream Hindi heroine. She was a feminist even before feminism became a thing in Hindi entertainment. Her films were heavy with socio-political symbolism and her characters with real stuff: reflection, awareness, and boldness. It wasn’t all out-of-reach glitz. Which is precisely why Patil was and continues to be adulated – because she was real. As real as any woman watching her in the cinema hall.
Patil’s birth anniversary falls on October 17. Here are 5 must-watch films you can watch to experience a touch of her genius ahead of that:
1. Manthan (1976)
Shyam Benegal’s Manthan was a revolutionary film in more ways than one. Contextualised around the White Revolution of the 1970s, Manthan was the first crowdfunded Indian film. It addressed polarising issues of caste politics, class hierarchy, and oppression of women at the grassroots level. Patil played Bindu, a magnetic character who had the ferocity to lead the group of marginalised women folk in her village and the grit to raise a child as a single mother.
She is aware of belonging to the “lower” caste but doesn’t let that become a barrier to her identity that she asserts with much pride. Though her status as a socially powerless woman is exploited in the dirty game of milk politics, as seen towards the end, she overcomes it to dedicate herself to the pioneering work of the White Revolution in her village.
Aside from Patil, the cast boasts of stellar actors like Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, and Amrish Puri. With this milieu of actors, Manthan is that quintessential Benegal film that straddles social history and just enough fiction to constitute Hindi cinema.
2. Bhumika (1977)
Another Benegal masterpiece, Bhumika in many ways is a one-woman show hinging on the bhumika (role) of Patil as the protagonist around whose life and identity the film revolves. She plays Usha, a biographical character based on Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, through the various facets of her journey, from being a conflicted child in an abusive home to becoming a successful star in Mumbai. Her story is explored patiently, allowing the audience to swim through her emotional upheavals, womanhood, heartbreaks, and dynamic disposition.
Abuse remains a recurring theme in her life, coming full circle from what she saw in childhood right into her own adulthood when her own husband Keshav (Amol Palekar) metes out the same treatment to her. Balancing the repeatedly wronged but resilient Usha with the egoistic, insecure man in her life, the film dives equally into territories of female strength and toxic masculinity.
Bhumika is the story of a woman pacing many steps at a time in a world of men in a bid to live life fuller and freer. Regarded to be Patil’s best performance in her short-lived career, it fetched her a National Award and international recognition.
3. Mirch Masala (1987)
A classic psycho-thriller by Ketan Mehta, Mirch Masala showcases another riveting performance by Patil in the role of Sonbai. Set in pre-independence India, the film tracks the social and cultural climate of hierarchical powers in a village warring with the colonial system. In the thick of things is Sonbai, a young feisty woman who thinks with her heart and speaks her mind. Even as her character is introduced, she lays out her confident disposition for all to see, in the way she conducts herself, the way she acts, and just the way she is.
Those around her call her “stubborn”, conservative code for an opinionated woman who can differentiate right from wrong and isn’t afraid to say as much. She is a singular army in herself and dares to take on the cruel subedaar (Naseeruddin Shah), slapping him when he tries to force himself on her. A chase ensues, with Sonbai caught in the eye of a storm. She is condemned by the villagers, having to pay the price for insulting the honour of a “master”, but she stands her ground, unrelenting till the end.
Mirch Masala is essentially a feminist film in many ways, handing immense power to its women and seeking a resolution by way of retribution for all the wrongs they are subjected to at the hands of men.
4. Bazaar (1982)
In the role of Najma, Patil explores the issue of women’s agency over their own bodies in Bazaar. The plot of this Sagar Sarhadi film is based on the concept of bride buying, and its black, white and greys are explored through Najma’s reaction to it all.
She is a kind-hearted, perceptive woman wronged by her family who pushed her into selling her body for money. The emotional temperament of Najma is boldly underscored even as men visit her place for availing her services, giving a glimpse into the dilemma she faces about using her physicality in exchange for finances. It sets the tone for the larger picture of bride buying where very young girls go up on sale for marriage – something that deeply disturbs the forward-looking Najma. She is, in a blinding shock, introduced to the pitiful state of women in society, who like her, have no autonomy over the use of their bodies, which are exploited instead to satiate the pleasures of men.
When the bride, Shabnam, played by the wonderful Supriya Pathak, dies by suicide after the injustice meted out to her, Najma holds herself thoroughly responsible for her death, in not having deterred the crime, from a woman to a woman. The audience is left with a sense of dread at the various moralities women have to live up to in the world to have an honourable existence.
5. Aakhir Kyon? (1985)
Aakhir Kyon? was one in the long line of Patil’s successful pairing with Rajesh Khanna. And yet again, she reprised her role as another shade of the strong-headed, strong-willed woman adamant on her identity and space that she was so well-known for. Here, she played Nisha, a woman whose destiny as a lone wolf was written ever since she came into the world as an orphan. She grew up, only to marry a cheating husband who wasn’t regretful of his philandering habits. But she doesn’t cave as well, leaving the house instead, despite being a mother to a small girl.
She finds her niche in the working world as an author, inclined neither towards returning to her husband nor in initiating a romance with Alok (Khanna). She looks straight towards her goals, keeping her self-respect on priority, unyielding to the society that wronged her at every turn.
Being a mainstream Hindi movie, everything works out positively in the end – with Nisha resolving differences with her husband and uniting with Alok. But it leaves the audience with the bittersweet aftertaste of a woman’s range of tribulations faced, battled, and championed every day, that is the pulse of every Smita Patil craftwork.
Views expressed are the author’s own.