Remembering the legend that was Smita Patil Filed on December 8, 2017
Remembering the legend that was Smita Patil

Next week marks the 31st death anniversary of the actress extraordinaire, who passed away at an early age

Time does fly. It seems just like yesterday, but December 13 this year marks the 31st death anniversary of the peerless artiste Smita Patil. Post her controversial marriage to actor-politician Raj Babbar, she was 31 years old when she passed away following complications after a child delivery. Their son, Prateik, was barely a fortnight-old when the incomparable actress breathed her last in a city hospital.

In a career spanning a little over a decade, Smita had acted in as many as 80 films, a majority of which belonged to the off-mainstream genre. Winner of two National Awards for Best Actress (Bhumika, Chakra), she had successfully segued into the hyper-commercial mode too, and was paired successfully with the eminent heroes of the time - ranging from Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna to Shashi Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty.

However, as her sister Manya Patil Seth points out, "Smita was never comfortable in big-budget movies. She wept her heart out after performing the rain dance with Mr Bachchan in Namak Halaal; she felt she wasn't doing the right thing. Yet, she was intelligent enough to understand that if she acted in regular Bollywood products and gained mass popularity, many more viewers would want to see her in meaningful cinema."

Manya, who's been striving for years to keep the memory of her sister alive - through retrospectives of Smita's films and an annual award ceremony named after her - adds poignantly, "Somewhere within me, I can't help feeling that Smita would have been alive today had she stuck exclusively to the aesthetic, socially relevant cinema being made in the 1970s and '80s by Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Govind Nihalani, Ketan Mehta and Kumar Shahani. They treated her like family. Otherwise, she was overworked, pressured and didn't take sufficient care about health issues - like her ongoing abdominal colic ailment. Frankly, none of us in the family were happy when she upped and married Mr Babbar. As you know, he was already married and a father of two children."

I'd known Smita since she studied in the same college, St Xavier's, in Mumbai. She'd constantly try to deflect attention, refusing to talk about any possibility of a film acting career. Yet, because of her striking presence on campus, we could sense that she was bound for stardom. She had already featured in a couple of short films and was the newsreader for the local Doordarshan centre during television's early black-and-white era.

Shyam Benegal, impressed by the newsreader's poise and expressive eyes, introduced her in his children's film Charandas Chor (1975) and there was no looking back. Smita became a regular in the Benegal repertory.

Inevitably, much ado was made about her rivalry with Shabana Azmi, who had been introduced by the auteur in Ankur. Shabana and Smita featured together in his Nishant, and consequently in Mandi. "Initially, maybe Smita believed I was being too hoity-toity, travelling in a separate car to the studio in Hyderabad," Shabana remembers. "When I joined Smita and the rest of the unit in a bus, there were no unpleasant vibes whatsoever."

Really? Wasn't Shabana upset when Benegal cast Smita instead of her in Manthan and Bhumika? Also, Smita wasn't too thrilled during the filming of Arth, which assigned Shabana the more sympathetic role of a wronged wife.

To that Shabana retorts, "In retrospect, I admit that I made some stupid remarks about the so-called competition between us. The controversy wasn't a figment of the imagination but it was certainly fuelled by the press. I do feel sorry about that. Believe me, we were friends, there was a bond. I'd visit her family, she'd visit mine. I think, after a point, we had realised that such rivalry, exacerbated by the media, was self-defeating." As it happened, both Shabana and Smita could straddle the disparate worlds of commercial and parallel cinema.

On being asked to compare the acting prowess of Smita and Shabana, Benegal states logically, "See, it's tragic that Smita went away too soon. She would have surely asserted her range had she lived longer. To make any kind of comparisons would be odious."

My imperishable memory of Smita Patil is hanging out with her for a day, for a cover story for a magazine. At the home of her parents, she showed me her eclectic collection of books - bestsellers, volumes on psychology, tomes on various political ideologies and coffee-table glossies on the joy of travelling and still photography. Unbeknownst to many, she had taken off to Rajasthan to click photos with her high-end cameras. "I'm restless, I guess," she had said wanly. "On the surface, I may seem sorted. But you know what? There's always this urge for wanderlust. Honestly, there are so many more miles to go."

In sum, all I can say is that all those who knew her - whether on or off screen - also know that there can never be another Smita Patil.

Khalid Mohamed


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