By Vikas Datta
Title: SmitaPatil: A Brief Incandescence; Author: Maithili Rao; Publisher: Harper Collins; Pages: 348.
As Shyam Benegal’s iconic “Manthan” was being shot in a village near Gujarat’s Rajkot, a big crowd came from the city to see the Bollywood actors, but none of them could recognise the film’s heroine – who was sitting with the other women, including locals, and virtually indistinguishable. That was the magic of Smita Patil, who surmounted an actor’s biggest challenge – of acting without appearing to do so and total immersion in a role to an extent that viewers can nearly forget they are seeing a performance. And then, the mesmering gaze of those smouldering and expressive eyes is unlikely to be ever matched.
In her short life and career, Smita managed a wide gamut of earthy and complex performances, rendered with such intensity, empathy and maturity that older and more experienced actors would find hard to pull off. And she was prolific – in a career that just stretched over an decade, she managed nearly 80 films, including some of the most path-breaking ever made in India – and some utterly dreadful, redeemed partly by her presence despite the atrocious dialogues, situations and dresses heaped on her.
But still, Indian cinema’s quintessential “Everywoman” who personified intensity in her “parallel” cinema roles and a refined sensibility in mainstream ones, and in real life, was unpretentious, spontaneous, and daring, has been under-served as far as a comprehensive story of her life is concerned. That is until now.
Bringing together the stories of Smita the person and Smita the actress is veteran film critic and writer Maithili Rao, who stresses that her attempt is not a “conventional biography” and neither a “collection of anecdotes” but actually recounting of Smita’s life – on and off-screen – and assessing her “significant films in their context and from the perspective of distance that time has given us”.
Rao, who has been a long-standing columnist and contributor to various anthologies on Indian cinema, has been through – interacting with not only Smita’s family (including her mother Vidya Patil who passed away a few months back), close friends and her most significant films’ directors – Benegal (who has also furnished a brief but incisive foreword noting Smita’s rise to rare heights as an actress in a film industry whose stereotypical demands and definitions of feminine beauty she never met), Jabbar Patel, Arun Khopkar (whose FTII diploma film was her debut), Ketan Mehta, Mahesh Bhatt, Ramesh Sippy, Saeed Mirza, Sandeep Ray (for his illustrious father Satyajit Ray’s recollections) and many other actors – contemporary and modern – right down to Smita’s faithful make-up man.
She however refrains from focusing on relationships, specifically her controversial marriage to an already-married Raj Babbar, since she never knew Smita’s own version and Raj was not keen on talking about it (though she notes he made his peace with her family).
Some interesting facets of Smita’s life come to light – she was never a FTII student but was always thought to be so because she regularly hung out there, was fond of driving motorcyles and army ‘jongas’ (according to elder sister Aruna, she and her friend once drove one from Delhi to Bombay, including through the then badlands of Chambal – only being careful not to let her parents know), could give the choicest abuses when angered, a dab hand at photography, and very fond of children (and raising them).
But the highlights are the chapters dealing with Smita’s best known films, in which she invariably played a character dealt a bad hand by fate – in shape of caste, custom, economics, or relationships – but still fighting back, be it the feisty and fiery Bindu of “Manthan”, troubled actress Usha in “Bhumika”, free-spirited gypsy Ujaan in “Bhavni Bhavai”, widow Amma coming to terms with the corrupting influence of poverty in a big-city slum in “Chakra”, Hyderabadi woman Najma who amorally sells a younger innocent woman to an older husband in “Bazaar” to help her own uncertain love life, upper class woman with a burning conscience and service ideal Sulabha in “Umbartha/Subah”, the free-living but conscientious love interest Roma in “Shakti”, the fragile house-breaker Kavita in “Arth” and above all, the indomitable Sonbai in “Mirch Masala” (with the parallels of its climatic scene with the 2002 Gujarat riots) and many more. And some Bollywood inanities are not neglected too!
The book is not only a long-pending due to this accomplished but instinctive actress but also an invaluable distillation of some of the best of Indian cinema, which could easily rise above mindless escapism to sensitively portray society and its inequities and injustices – especially towards women, whose plight Smita can so touchingly render.