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Sunday, December 9, 2001
Article

An actress with searing intensity
M.L. Dhawan

SMITA Patil was born in Pune in 1955. After studying literature at Bombay University, she worked briefly as a T.V. newsreader. She was spotted by Shyam Benegal and he took her under his wing. Smita vibed well with the new wave filmmakers. She broke the stereotype of the conventional heroine and expressed willingness to essay roles which give her an opportunity to explore her potential as an actress.

Smita Patil was a pioneer in the depiction of woman on celluloid
Smita Patil was a pioneer in the depiction of woman on celluloid

When Smita Patil arrived on the film scene, Hindi cinema did not offer any significant role to the heroine in the storyline. A heroine’s presence was merely meant to lend glamour to the proceedings. Smita Patil was reluctant to play the second fiddle. She demanded meaty roles in which she either played the principal part or at least shared equal footage with the male character. Some filmmakers scoffed at the audacity an actress who had ordinary looks and dusky complexion. In Shyam Benegal’s Manthan, Smita played a Harijan woman. She radiated such confidence that she not only doused the doubts of filmmakers, but enamoured the audience as well. Her down-to-earth performance won her stardom.

Shyam Benegal exploited Smita’s potential to the hilt in Bhumika — the story of actress Hansa Wadkar. Smita played Usha — the heroine — whose search for happiness is strewn with several broken relationships. Consequently, she raises several questions of women‘s oppression and exploitation. Smita funnelled her intensity into the role and she was considered on a par with the best actors. In Benegal’s The Naxalites, Smita, while going to the gallows, flashes disdain the like of which the audience had never seen before. Smita’s histrionics won her rapturous reviews.

Smita emblazoned herself on the mindscape of the masses.

 


In her roles, Smita always called for a new consciousness of the dignity of women and soon come to be known as an icon of Indian women. In Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, while the menfolk of the village dance to the tunes of the feudal oppressor Subedar (Nasseruddin Shah), Smita as Sonabai, defies the authoritarian Subedar even though she knows that in the factory where she has taken shelter alongwith other women-workers, the only weapon available is the piles of peppers, which are not enough to fight against the Subedar’s men. Smita lent a rare sensitivity to her role and mesmerised the audiences with her powerful performance.

Smita’s supreme achievement was in her being a heroine who triumphantly crossed image boundaries. In Jabbar Patel’s Subah Smita played Sulbha a social crusader and director of a mahila ashram.Prior to her taking over the post, the helpless inmates of the home were driven to suicide and prostitution on account of their exploitation in the home. When Smita tells the inmates to resist, the abusive practices to which they are subjected there is magic in her eyes. She exudes majesty and dignity from every pore. In Kumar Shahani’s Tarang, Smita as Janki a prostitute who spends the money she earns to support a working class movement — was heart-wrenching and soul stirring. The audience empathised with the character of the prostitute she played.

In Nishant, Smita was pitted Shabana Azmi, but she made her presence felt. They crossed swords again in Mandi. Smita held her ground firmly. In Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, Smita played an adulterous woman. As a neurotic woman Kavita, she rose above the inherent restrictions of playing a unidimensional home-breaker. In every frame, Smita stood shoulder to shoulder with Shabana Azmi and moved Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal Hassan to congratulate her on her superb performance. Both Smita and Shabana had opposite approaches to acting. If Shabana acted with her head, Smita did with her heart. Where Shabana swept her ingenuity, Smita swayed with her genius, yet both angled for the some kind of roles.

Smita Patil was a pioneer in the depiction of woman on celluloid. Her grace and charm made every role she played a treat to watch. Her talent and majesty made Smita a complete actress. In Dharamraj’s Chakra, Amma (Smita Patil), her son and husband arrive in Bombay with dreams of living one day in a pucca house. In the last scene, the wretchedness of human defeat is writ large on Amma’s face when bulldozers arrive and flattern their jhuggies in a slum area. Smita gave a realistic performance. She lived unrecognised among Mumbai slum dwellers for months and most of her shots were taken with a hidden camera. As Amma, she created an image of a woman who could be desired as well as deified. In Bheegi Palkein, as the wife of a crippled man, Smita’s performance was penetrating. Each expression was realistic. Her eyes acted as mirrors for the emotional tempests churning within her.

Working with directors of the calibre of Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Mahesh Bhatt, Jabbar Patel, Govind Nihlani, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray etc. Smita expanded her range, acting with finely-nuanced precision scenes that were a cry from the heart. Smita was not particularly beautiful, all she had going for her was her talent. What gave Smita an edge over other actresses of her time was her gift of understatement and her knack of portraying the innermost feelings of the character she played. She exhibited a remarkable aptitude for depicting her characters’ suffering as seen in several variations of sentimental themes in films such as Sadagati, Chidambaram, Anugrahan, Mandi, Bazaar, Akrosh, etc. Smita delineated her screen persona in a way no other actress ever has done. She acquired a unique status as an actress equally at home with the new wave cinema as well as mainstream potboilers. She proved her mettle even in commercial films like Namak Halal, Shakti, Aakhir Kyon, Dard Ka Rishta, Haadsa, Shapath, Ghungaroo etc.

A week before Smita was due to deliver her baby, she called Kuljit Pal, the producer of Aaj and said, "Let us finish the dubbing. What if I am not here later." On December 12, 1986, while the film industry was celebrating ‘Hope-86’, Smita was battling for life at Breach Candy Hospital, a result of post delivery complications. She died in the wee hours of the morning on December 13. Her death shook the world of Cinema in a way few deaths have.

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