As Smita Patil walked through the forest, humming these lines, we realized what liberation means. She was one of her kind – fierce yet gentle, vulnerable yet resilient, traditional yet unconventional, and much more. In a career spanning thirteen years that was tragically cut short due to her untimely demise, Smita Patil gave some of the most remarkable performances that redefined the notion of an ‘actress’ in Indian Cinema. She ventured through the world of parallel cinema and mainstream cinema with equal strength and grace, giving many memorable characters in her acting career that would leave an everlasting impact on the minds of the viewers.
My introduction to Smita Patil, however, was through her Marathi films and songs. Though a large section of cinema lovers remember her for her contribution to Parallel Cinema, her work in the Marathi film industry was equally path-breaking and unconventional. This includes her roles in films such as ‘Umbartha’ (meaning ‘The Doorstep’) and ‘Jait Re Jait’ (meaning ‘Win-Win!), both directed by veteran director Jabbar Patel. In Umbartha, she plays Sulbha Mahajan, a free-spirited married woman who takes charge of a Women’s Reformatory at a remote place to fulfill her desire of doing something for society and the upliftment of neglected women. While doing so, she has to juggle between her professional and personal life, and she eventually sees herself being alienated by her own family. She does not give up on her mission to provide a better life for the girls and women at the reformatory even as her own life is falling apart. The story shows how a woman has to struggle on both fronts once she crosses the doorstep and gets out of the four walls – the traditional boundaries marked for her by the patriarchy.
In ‘Jait Re Jait’, she plays ‘Chindhi’ (literally meaning a torn piece of cloth’), a tribal woman who dares to break off her marriage alliance with a neglectful husband and selflessly devotes her life to her newfound love, an ambitious tribal drummer from their clan. Such was her choice of characters – one, trying to piece together broken lives while her own life was falling apart, and another, breaking off from all attachments to live a life of her own. Smita Patil was a feminist herself, and her characters were a reflection of various shades of her personality – fierce, liberal, daring, devoted, loving, and caring. Though ‘Jait Re Jait’ couldn’t perform well at the box office, it went on to become a cult classic in Marathi cinema, and it remains one of the greatest music albums of all time. Smita’s portrayal of the tribal woman Chindhi stood out for its authenticity and sensitivity.
Both of the aforementioned films were musical hits, whose songs had a rich literary foundation, philosophical taste, and excellent musical compositions, making them some of the most unforgettable melodies of all time. Their music was composed by Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar, and the mesmerizing melodies were sung by the Mangeshkar sisters – Lata and Asha. In ‘Jait Re Jait’, Chindhi celebrates her independence by singing ‘Mi Raat take, walking through the wild forests, greeneries, and river – the free spirit of her personality being in tune with the free spirit of nature. The song ‘Nabh Otaru aala’ celebrates the union of Nagya and Chindhi – representing two forces of nature – Nagya, fierce, free-flowing, passionate like a river, and Chindhi, selfless, grounded, and caring like a tree. Yes, the feminine nature of the river is reflected in the male protagonist whereas the female protagonist is more like the masculine force of nature. I was fascinated by these reversed gender roles, something that I felt and observed while watching the movie.
In ‘Umbartha’, the song ‘Chand matla’ celebrates the female desires – once again using the elements of nature as symbols, indicators of budding hopes and dreams of a woman. But the song that stays back with you forever, is ‘Sunya sunya maifilit mazya’. As a girl from her reformatory gets married, the celebrations remind Sulbha of her own marriage. As she goes through an old photo album, she reminisces about the happy memories, about the times she spent with her husband and daughter. We can see the pain and sadness on her face, indicating ‘things are not the same anymore’, and the helplessness that there’s nothing that she can do to change the reality. The song plays in the background, with hard-hitting lyrics written by Suresh Bhat. The haunting, melancholic melody of ‘Sunya Sunya’, which is still considered one of the most memorable Marathi songs by the nightingale Lata Mangeshkar, was composed by her Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar.
Smita, who wasn’t a trained actress, was often mistaken as an FTII alumnus because of her frequent visits to the campus during the early days of her career. While working as a television news presenter at the Mumbai branch of Doordarshan, she was discovered and launched in the Hindi film industry by Shyam Benegal through his art house films. In a film industry where fair-skinned actresses were always preferred, Smita Patil was considered an unusual choice due to her dark complexion. But the rawness, passion, and intensity of her acting soon established her as one of the leading ladies of the Parallel cinema. She was one of the three most glamorous actresses from the Parallel cinema – the other two being Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval, both her contemporaries.
‘Nishant’ was the film that launched Smita as a promising artist. In this story set in a village with a feudal backdrop, Amrish Puri was the feudal lord and patriarch of his family with three younger brothers. Smita Patil plays Rukmini, a helpless wife of the youngest brother who is infatuated with the village schoolmaster’s wife Sushila (played by Shabana Azmi). As she is kidnapped and brought into the house, we see the change in Rukmini’s behavior – from a jealous, angry, hurt wife trapped in a hopeless relationship, to a woman understanding and sympathizing with another
woman’s sufferings. In ‘Manthan’, she is Bindu, an outspoken, daring lower-caste woman who is welcoming a change that will ensure the welfare of the village, and takes a stand against the traditional orthodox sections of the rural society who are resisting the change.
Smita Patil’s versatility as an actress shined brightly in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Bhumika’, a film inspired by the biography of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar that won Smita a National award for best actress. She portrayed the transformation of Usha, from being a young, fearless teenager, then a successful, ambitious actress having a troubled personal life with a series of unsuccessful romantic relationships, and eventually a wise, wounded, but a mature middle-aged woman who has understood life. It was one of the best, career-defining performances given by her.
In ‘Bazaar’, a film that questions the institution of marriage and the commodification of women in marriage alliances, she plays Najma, a victim and culprit at the same time. Najma, who herself was sold off by her Nawab family holding onto their lost glory, tries everything in her power to bring her life back on track and stay away from this marriage market where women are auctioned like commodities. But she unknowingly pushes someone very close to her into the same market, only to realize it later and carry the guilt of having been a part of this crime.
Through her characters, Smita Patil portrayed various shades of a woman’s mind and heart. She was never black or white, but always a shade of gray. The stories she chose to work with weren’t out-of-the-world fantasies. These were the stories of Indian women from different social backgrounds and their daily struggles. But instead of settling for the popular notion of being a ‘heroine’, a female protagonist secondary to the ‘hero’ of the film, she chose to be the driving force of the story. The characters she chose were not of a ‘helpless Indian woman grappling with all sorts of problems and waiting for the love of her life to come and rescue her so that they can live happily ever after.’ She chose to focus on the inner strength of a woman, the realization of that inner strength, and her ability to fight off even some of the toughest challenges that life can throw at her.
In a time when a large number of successful films used to have inconsequential or secondary roles for actresses, Smita Patil was the charioteer of her films. She was making her mark through nuanced portrayals of a layered human mind in her wisely chosen characters. The determination of Bindu and Sulbha, the helplessness of Rukmini and Najma, the free spirit of Chindhi, the playfulness, impulsiveness, and then the maturity of Usha – she could act through her eyes. She also worked actively in mainstream Bollywood films, giving us many memorable performances and evergreen songs even though she was visibly uncomfortable with the formula movies – her most remembered songs include ‘Aaj rapat jaye toh hame na uthaiyo’ (Namak Halaal), ‘Jaane kaise kab kahan’ (Shakti), ‘Dushman na kare dost ne jo kaam kiya hai’ (Aakhir Kyon?), and many more.
The discussion on Smita Patil and her cinematic legacy is a never-ending one. Had she been alive, she would’ve been 67 years old. During the brief period for which she worked in films, she left an everlasting impact, inspiring many emerging artists of the later generations. I’ve watched many of her films, but there are a lot more to go. Every film presents a new version of hers in front of us, giving us a new reason every time for loving her and loving cinema. Smita Patil is not with us anymore, but her legacy lives on – through her films.