Smita Patil was a legend who portrayed role of crusader for liberation of women at an unprecedented scale in Hindi films. No actress was better in championing role of an oppressed woman.
No Indian actress has immersed so much into the thick and skin of an opressed woman or done as much justice to the role of woman’s rebellion against male subjugation as Smita Patil.Tragically her illustrious career was abrupted with her sudden death in late 1986.The film industry lost a genius. Few artists in film world were as down to earth as Smita Patil.
Smita was so natural that one virtually felt she was the very character. The magnitude of her intensity in her roles bearing the mantle of crusade against injustice was unmatched. She could express the rage of a thunderstorm bursting, the sweetness of river water and the beauty of a lotus in full bloom. Her facial expressions in different roles had touches of genius, varying her expression like the colours of a rainbow.
Smita did not posess the conventional beauty of actresses like Zeenat Aman or Hema Malini, but in terms of inner beauty she surpassed them. Her performances touched the very core of the soul of an audience. She had a poetic dimension to her work which few actresses posessed.Smita Patil’s acting had overtones of the highest pitch in a musical symphony .Smita’s acting brought us closest t the essence of nature, with an element of realism few ever had, taking conviction to regions of the sublime. Rarely has an actress exhibited such poise.Smita took originality in acting to regions very rarely traversed and with Shabana Azmi virtually defined new era in Indian films or gave it a new dimension. I greatly miss Smita participating in classic film portraying oppression of films. Still it was Smita Patil who with Shabana Azmi defined the trend of ‘Art’ movies. Like Shabana ,Smita had a brilliant chemistry with Naseeruddin Shah.
Smita Patil championed the role of the common woman in many film, symbolising the opression or social evils they faced and their outlook towards emancipation. In films like ‘Bhumika’, ‘Manthan’, ‘Bazaar’,Mandi’ and ‘Mirch Masala’ ,in different aspects she portrayed the woman as a crusader against injustice. What was remarkable was the manner she schemed the plots. with her acting almost making them weave around her.Smita’s roles also contributed a lot to inspire women to battle crusades for justice and challenged spirit of submissiveness amongst women at the very root. No actress could crystallize a women seeking vengeance against injustice better.Smita Patil performed doing justice to social reality prevailing like no other actress of her day, apart from Shabana Azmi.
She did supporting roles with Shabana Azmi in films like ‘Arth’, ‘Mandi,’ and ‘Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoo aata Hai”(1980).I have never seen a pair of actresses meld so well together or so complementary. No actress was as similar to Shabana Azmi or matched her contemporary’s talent.Shabana was the more refined, graceful or versatile but Smita had more of the joie de vivre , intensity, or element of rawness. Projecting self defence of a woman or rage against a male opressor Smita would win over Shabana. It is a great regret that they were arch rival sin real life with Shabana openly running Smita down and Smita often reprimanding Shabana for underestimating her. To me projecting a crusader for woman’s liberation Smita would overshadow Shabana.
Smita also acted in some commercial films like ‘Namak Halaal'(1982) with Amitabh Bachhan.Such was the level of her morality that she expressed regret for participating in commercial films.
Smita Patil gave her best ever performance in Mirch Masala.(1987) .Here she donned the colours of a lower caste woman Sonbai confronting the opression of a Subedar enacted by Naseeruddin Shah.. I have never seen an actress reveal intensity at such a magnitude rebelling against male injustice, reminiscent of an inferno. More than her words her mere body expressions or movements tell the story.Smita enacting Sonbai brilliantly blends or synthesizes nuances of innocence with agression, working in a Chilli powder factory. She brilliantly reflects a woman refusing to be submissive or yield to man’s sexual thirst. and the contrast of the sexual aspirations of woman with men.Smita instills confidence in a woman to climb the steepest hurdles to overcome an adversary. Great subtlety is shown in distinct expressions with which she bonds with other members of the film plot like the Village Mukhi’s wife Saraswati enacted by Deepti Naval , the watchman Abu Mian played by Om Puri and the school teacher played by Benjamin Jilani,who all support Sonbai.I don’t have an adjective to do justice to her blazing face and the courage she reveals when the women who earlier were on her side supported her submission to the hands of the Subedar.The scene when she flings chilli power into the eyes of the Subedar is arguably the most defining act of a woman in a retaliatory action for justice in a Hindi film. Smita literally carries the movie on her shoulders. She defies masculinity in no uncertain terms. Above all she gives a slap in the face to all who label woman as submissive and is a living example of their immense potential to defend themselves from oppression. No role is more symbolic of the thirst of a woman for liberation from male oppression. The factor of caste oppression is brought to light in this movie with Sonbai being from a non-dominant caste.
In Mandi (1983) Smita playing role of Zeenat superbly enacts the role of brothel administer by Shabana Azmi ,developing a relationship with Shabana Azmi.It reflects the real lives or condition of women in brothels and how they wish to seek liberation from it.Subtle scenes of her playing the Suitar intensely and fooling with a monkey. Her role livens the fabric of the plot, playing an integral part in giving it a meaning.
In Bazaar(1982) exuding greatest malleability she plays the role of a women Najma who is to be sold abroad in Dubai..She takes conviction in the intensity of an inferno when combating Akhtar Hussain played by Pankaj Kapoor and romance in regions of the sublime with Salim enacted by Farooq Siddiqui .Her role reveals the true plight of slavery of women. who were to be marketed abroad. .I challenge any actress to have done more justice to blending every aspect of the character portraying evolution in a person .Smita’s role gives the theme of the movie it’s shape, of how women are enslaved for sex work.
In Bhumika (1977) co staring with Amol Palekar enacting character of Usha she reveals sensitivity conviction of mystical proportions. I can’t forget her exchanges with husband Keshav enacted by Amol Palekar and with Rajan played by Ananth Nag..Rarely has the eyes of an actress conveyed a theme so much. With great craft she portrays how a man controls the life of a woman. She is the granddaughter of famous artist and marries Keshav.The marriage fails due to her husband’s failure to give economic support and he tries to use her name. She gets involved with other men like Rajan played by Anant Nag , played by Amrish Puri as Vinayak Kale.played by Naseerudin Shah as Sunil Shah ,but the same trend of male exploitation continues. Her character has continuous ebb and flow and I could not forsee any other artist doing more justice to the character and theme of film.Usha strikes male usury at the very core.
In Manthan (1976) enacting role of villager ‘Bindu’ she reveals simplicity at magnitude few artists have ever done and portrayed a dalit woman to the very skin of the character. Girsih Karnad as Dr Rao is pioneering the cooperative movement .It is Bindu who leads the women villagers and is responsible for knitting them into the cooperative milk movement. Smita as Bindu superbly illustrates the chemistry of a dalit village woman with Dr. Rao and husband Bhola.I can’t forget her expression when giving her thumb impression to a document indicting Dr Rao played by Girish Karnad. I can also never forget the scene when she sees Dr.Rao played by Girsih Karnad for the first time .Her role gives shape to the democratic message of the film.Smita’s facial expressions throughout superbly blend with the cast and shape the plot. I love the look of innocence on her face and the subtle transformation in nature.
In Waaris(1988) Smita enacting role of Paro displays great conviction .The expressions of a crusader for justice is written on her face when preventing Dulla and his three sons from capturing the land of Shravan carrying a traditional fork..I was deeply impressed with the manner her casting galvanised the plot of this film, even if it was not a classic. Brilliant chemistry with Poonam Dhilon.
In ‘Arth’ (1982) even if Shabana Azmi steals the show Smita is at her best in portraying role of a rival. In many ways it was Smita’s support that brought about the brilliance of Shabana in the cast. She poses a deep rivalry enacting role of Kavita, to Pooja enacted by Shabana Azmi, as the lover of Inder enacted by Kulbhushan Kharbanda. In certain junctures her intensity even matches that of Pooja .
In Commercial. film ‘Namak Halaal,(1977) Smita plays romantic lead being an accomplice of Amitabh Bacchan with great volatility. She brings out the best in co-star Amitabh and infuses the film it’s juice or essential life.
In Nishant (1975) as Rukmini she plays a supporting role to Shabana Azmi as Sushila in a movie highlighting culture of landlordism. I would have loved to have seen the roles in reverse, but that is hypothetitical and I take no credit away from Shabana.
In my view Smita Patil would carve a place amongst the best five Indian actresses of all time. No doubt even in her time she was overshadowed by rival Shabana but she also carried off some roles standing on her own legs, which virtually matched the brilliance of Shabana.It is sad that arguably the competition with Shabana Azmi. did not bring out the best in Smita Patil.I doubt even Azmi would have equalled Smita in filmsl ike ‘Bhumika’ or ‘Mirch Masala.’ Or even ‘Manthan.’
I speculate how an equivalent of a Smita Patel could fit into Bollywood today with female opression having escalated with monopoly of higher castes at crescendo. She could have been the mascot of women challenging the exploitation of women to promote consumerism, striving for better working conditions and confronting casteist oppression and corruption .In a proper character she may have become the best Indian character actress ever. Her look was so captivating that she may have overshadowed the great commercial stars.Smita may have also been a great example as a human being in the film Industry, which is virtually stripped off it’s dignity today. It is worth reading Shabana Azmi’s tribute to her counterpart in a memorial meeting. Till this day her memories still shimmer in the minds of fans and she has carved a permanent niche in the hall of fame .I would also a Smita Patil in a genuinely revolutionary democratic cinema ,which may have done great justice to her potential.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist. Toured India, particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com