“In her short career that spanned all of 12 years, Smita Patil’s incredibly riveting and memorable performances in practically all the films she acted in have remained the envy of most actors in Indian cinema. Anyone who knew Smita as an acquaintance, a friend or a professional colleague remembers her as a guileless, spontaneous young woman given to great enthusiasm.” So writes the acclaimed filmmaker Shyam Benegal in the foreword of Maithili Rao’s book Smita Patil — A Brief Incandescence. Of course, it is safe to say that Benegal knew what he was talking about given the fact that he was responsible for most of Patil’s most iconic performances such as those in Charandas Chor, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, and Kondura.
What is worth noting is that these films were released within a span of three years, between 1975 and 1977; what makes them all the more fascinating is that they were among the first few that Patil acted in, and could well be called her most complex roles. In light of the fact that Patil was in her early 20s when she delivered such towering turns does, in fact, speak volumes for the talent that simmered behind her mesmerising eyes.
Rao, who is a film journalist, does point out that “this book is not a conventional biography. Nor a collection of anecdotes. It charts her life in cinema and examines her significant films in their context and from the perspective of distance that time has given us.” But yet, it is much more than that — since through an in-depth examination of her films, interviews with the directors and actors who worked with Smita Patil, Rao brings to life the woman that was Smita Patil — on and off screen.
Maithili Rao’s biography of Smita Patil is made all the more interesting with input from filmmakers and actors who worked with her
Born to a “middle class” Marathi family, Patil forayed into the spotlight as a newsreader for Doordarshan; however, in sharp contrast to the serious, conventionally ‘Indian’ woman she often portrayed on screen, whether as a newsreader or actor, she practically lived in her jeans in real life, and was quite the tomboy. “There is a lovely story about her elegant handloom saris that drew admiring oohs and aahs. Smita reportedly draped them in a hurry over the jeans she lived in, just minutes before going on air. Did she relish the joke she was playing on her audiences and chuckle to herself? Spontaneity and that famous air of gravitas was her distinctive blend ... ”
And this, perhaps, is one of the most interesting aspects of the book: the fact that Patil was, despite the characters she played in most of her films, someone who was full of life, with a zest for adventure. Her sister, Anita, describes her as a free bird or a free spirit, a bit of a daredevil, with a tendency to use the most abhorrent of gaalis at the tip of a hat. She was, in fact, “the original bindaas girl”.
“We always felt that the essential Smita is an amalgam of what we have responded to in cinema, and learned to treasure, appreciate and love. This is of course a romantic idea we harbour in some corner of the heart and most of the time, we do know that is what it is: a romantic idea of the person we know from long hours spent in the dark of cinema halls, in the concentrated absorption with which we watch a DVD of her film, rewinding at will to watch an unforgettable scene again, hear that mesmerising voice speak from the heart. Yet there is a hunger to know more, not just the details of her life, of what she did when, but to grasp the Smitaness of Smita. The best art is what it conceals.” — Excerpt from the book
Similarly, Shabana Azmi recalls that during the shooting of Benegal’s Mandi Patil would often be found playing volleyball with the spot boys, or driving a motorbike. The relationship between the two was obviously not cordial for the most part; they were rivals from the start, with similar backgrounds. Their rivalry in many ways culminated during the shooting of Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, when Azmi who played the wronged wife walked away with accolades, while Smita, whose role was that of the unstable mistress and was based on the life of Parveen Babi, wasn’t given her due. Incidentally, this was also the time that Patil was involved with the married Raj Babbar, which perhaps further complicated matters given the media frenzy that resulted during that time about their relationship.
Yet, despite the rivalry, Patil was gracious. “Smita had the largest room in the hotel [during the shooting of Bazaar]. When she found out that Shaukat Azmi [Shabana Azmi’s mother] was given a small room, Smita immediately insisted that the senior actor shift to the larger room and she herself shifted to the smaller. Shabana generously tells this story to underline the grace and courtesy in relationships even if she and Smita were constantly pitted against each other, scrambling for the same roles.”
There are other aspects of Patil’s life that many people may not be aware of: she was an accomplished photographer with several exhibitions to her credit; Amitabh Bachchan, with whom she acted in Namak Halal (remember that infamous rain song?) and Shakti, recounts: “She had a sixth sense ... she had a premonition. I was shooting for Coolie in Bangalore. My association with Smita was limited to the sets. Other than that I had never made contact with her. We never met socially. But one night, at about one, I got a call ... it was Smita ... she said, ‘Amit-ji I am sorry to disturb you, but are you okay?’ I said ‘yes, I am fine,’ she said, ‘I just got up and had a very bad dream. I just wanted to call and find out if you were okay’ ... next morning I had my accident ... Throughout the two or three months I was in the ICU, she was a regular visitor ... she was a unique lady.”
A large chunk of A Brief Incandescence is dedicated to an almost exhaustive filmography, replete with analysis of each character that Patil played, as well as in-depth interviews with the directors in question whenever possible, not to mention Rao’s own assessments of Patil’s performances, which, for the most part, are gushing narratives. Another section titled ‘The way we remember her’ includes memories of the likes of Rauf Ahmed, former editor Filmfare, actors Nandita Das and Deepti Naval (whose poem ‘Smita and I’ is rather touching) and film critic Deepa Deosthalee. It is clear that so many decades after her untimely death, she lives on in the memories of her fans and colleagues, who miss her dearly, lending credence to the fact that Smi’s (as she was known to many people) incandescence was all too brief.
The reviewer is a Dawn member of staff.
Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence
By Maithili Rao
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 2nd, 2016
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