Hello! So somehow I stumbled onto the life of Smita Patil and I was so fascinated that I got reading about her. The output was this twitter thread. Here’s the same thread, in the shape of an essay.
Smita Patil was an actor par excellence and above all, an extraordinary human being. She lived for all of 31 years but her legacy HAS to stay around for 31 millennia at least and this is an attempt towards that.
If I could sum her life in 3 bullet points, I’d say, she was/is…
- – a study in contrasts
- – deeply compassionate, especially towards under-represented (indie filmmakers, feminists, the common folk)
- – fearless, spoke her mind and lived life on her own terms
Wait. Before I start, I think she was probably not meant to be even born!
Smita was the second child of Shivajirao Patil (a politician) and Vidyatai Patil (a social-worker/nurse). However, when her mother was pregnant with Smita, their financial condition was unstable and her mother was reluctant to continue with the pregnancy when she conceived Smita. Even when the mother went ahead with Smita, she was born premature baby (on 17 Oct ’56).
Legend says that when she was born, she had an angelic smile on her. Her mom named her Smita. Smita means “ever-smiling woman”. And since she was dusky, her mother endearingly called ‘Kali’ or its appendages like ‘Kaloba’ and ‘Kaluli’.
Most of her friends call her Smi though. I will take the liberty of calling Smi in this post.
Smi, as long as she lived, had a very strong and important relationship with her mother. Smi would often quip (in Marathi), “Tula mi nako hote na” (you didn’t want me, right?). Nothing could be far from the truth. Smi’s mother has been a pivotal figure in her life. She in fact raised Prateik (Smita Patil’s son) when Smi passed away at the young age of 31.
Growing up, Smi’s family was based in Pune and was part of “Rashtriya Sewa Dal” where they’d travel to towns and villages across India and performed dance dramas. She’d play the role of Jijabai (Shivaji’s mother). This was her early tryst with dance, acting, stage, and everything else that we know her for!
HOW DID SHE GET INTO FILMS?
One of her friends, Deepak Kirpekar, was a hobbyist photographer and would take pictures of Smita Patil in various outfits. Since the photographer’s friend was a newsreader on DD (Jyotsna Kirpekar), the couple would often go to the DD office at Worli, in Mumbai. Once while they were there, the office was getting renovated and the friend spread Smita’s photos on a makeshift table, while his wife was busy. These photos caught the eye of then DD director, P.V. Krishnamurthy.
He invited Smi to audition and the rest is, well, history!
Smi started as a newsreader on DD and she was so good with her husky voice and magnetic eyes that people would rush home to catch her show! One of these was actor Vinod Khanna, who was romantically involved with Smi at a point in time.
Cut to FTII.
A couple of students (one of them was Arun Khopkar) were looking for actresses for their Diploma Film. They asked Shabana Azmi but she was unavailable. They were lost and went walking around the FTII campus. They passed by a TV shop where the bank of TV screens was tuned onto Smita Patil, reading the news! They were stuck by “defined cheekbones and striking eyes” and decided to cast her.
They did not know who she was but they tracked her down and convinced her to do a role in ‘Teevra Madhyam’. This film is on Youtube! See it here.
Post that film, Smi got to work on some roles for Shyam Benegal. These included Charandas Chor (a children’s film), and Nishant (Smi shared the screen with Shabana Azmi in this one).
Later, Benegal signed her for Bhumika, which was based on the life of Marathi actor Hansa Wadkar and her struggle to cope with her career, love, and independence. For this role, Smi won the National Award for the best actress (in 1977).
This film made her realize that films were her calling. And there was no stopping her.
Three years later she won her second National Award, this time for Chakra (in 1980). It is said that she donated all the money that she got as the award to women’s causes. She also won a Filmfare for this film (in 1982). Oh, random trivia – Nasserdduing Shah was her co-actor in both films. And years later, the two of them also auditioned for an adaptation of Gandhi.
Her string of awards did not stop here.
She was conferred with a Padma Shri in 1985, one of the youngest (if not THE youngest) film personalities to be awarded.
The Government of India ever released a postage stamp honoring her!
AS AN ACTOR
As an actor, she chose to do experimental, small, and art films over commercial ones.
She would do films for free or tiny sums if she liked the subject and content. Case in point? Bhavani Bhavai (in 1980). The film explored caste-discrimination in Gujarat and Smi did it because she believed in the underlying theme and message of the film.
She eventually did foray into commercial cinema. She did only to expand her acting prowess. Plus she believed that if she becomes famous, she could support small filmmakers more! After all her audience would be curious to see smaller films if they featured her. She apparently said, “commercial film is a job I have to do in order to pursue my goal of helping create an audience for the small film in India.”
Even with commercial cinema, Smi refused to do films that underplayed the role of women.
Namak Halal is a noteworthy exception. The ‘Aaj Rapat Jaaye’ track apparently pained her immensely. She was reportedly very upset with the song and after it was shot, she locked herself up in her room and cried for hours. It was only AB who could put her at ease!
Anyhow. She did about 80 films. About 10 of those were released after she passed away. She was paired frequently with Rajesh Khanna. And with Raj Babbar (RB).
In Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth, Smi’s character loves a married man and wants to settle down with him. Ironically, the theme played out in her real life as she fell in love with RB, a married man with two kids!
Smi was married to Raj Babbar (RB) and like other things in her life, it probably wasn’t meant to happen!
Well, for starters, RB was already married to Nadira. Second, her mother was unhappy about it. She apparently said, “I can’t get out of our purana sanskar nor can I embrace contemporary morality fully.” Plus, it may not have mattered to her but the very feminist institutions that she supported, labeled her “ghar todne wali” once the news broke.
But Smi and RB persisted and eventually married. Oh, and RB was still married to Nadira at this time. A big deal in Indian society. And more so in those times!
Years later, RB said about Smi, “I would say that she was a bit mizaazwali (this is being said with all the respect and humility towards her)”
And so yes she was!
PS: I must add that there are unsubstantiated reports that she apparently had a turbulent, emotionally abusive marriage with RB. She reportedly planned to leave him after childbirth. Not sure of this though.
Smi was “delighted” when she became a mother. Here is an anecdote. Soon after PB was born, she developed a high fever (104 degrees). She put ice packs on her body and fed him!
PS: I can write a LOT about the early days of Prateik Babbar and how he coped with the loss of her mother! But I think I would skip it.
SMITA PATIL’S LEGACY
Smita Patil is probably the most remarkable person I have come to know. I don’t even know how to get started talking about her.
People that knew her to call her bindaas, bohemian, and Tom-boy-ish. And yet she stood for women’s rights and the early feminism movement. Even though she would play tough, conservative roles on screen, in real life, she was the polar opposite! She was a typical bindass girl, “very liberated and progressive in her thoughts and work.” She was fond of western clothes and wore off-shoulder dresses, halter tops, fitted trousers, and boots in contrast to her screen image in perfect handloom sarees.
For her news gigs, she would go to the studio in her jeans and shirt and wrap the saree neatly just minutes before the camera rolled in!
Her mother once said, “She used to dress like a bhikaran (a tramp). She’d wear a pair of jeans, pull on a kurta (even her father’s), Kolhapuri chappals, tie her hair into a bun and rush out. She never needed a mirror. Once she was to meet a well-known editor for an interview at a restaurant. He couldn’t recognize her. He kept waiting for ‘actress Smita Patil’, till she introduced herself. They both burst out laughing.”
Smi was dedicated to women’s causes and women empowerment and wanted to change the perceptions about women. She was part of the Women’s Centre in Bombay and contributed the money earned from her awards to women’s organizations. This link is a great read about her support for the feminist movement.
I have to say that unlike most of her co-stars, she belonged to the people! Apart from taking a vocal stand for feminist causes and indie & small filmmakers, she truly was a gem a human being. She treated everyone with respect. She could be found playing volleyball with the unit boys.
She would sit with the women of the village to catch breaks between shoots and was often unrecognizable to the public who had come to see her. Smi was a vegetarian and did not complain even at tough locations. If required, she would cook her own food, by borrowing things from the villagers.
Once there was a rebellion in one of the units on a shoot. The workers were demanding better food. Smi tackled and ended by announcing and eating the same red rice that they were served!
Even as a child, she was deeply compassionate. She’d bring stray cats and dogs home and feed them with milk and biscuits. She would personalize her gifts. She would write something special to make the gift special.
Smi was fond of photography, roads, drives, and adventure in general. The minute pack-up would be announced, she’d zip off! She once took off to Rajasthan and gave no explanation, no reason to anyone. When she came back a month later, she had a heap of photos she had shot on her Leica.
Once during monsoons, Smita drove Ashalata, another actress, at neck-break speed to Khandala. She jested with the scared Ashalata and said, “Imagine the fun if tomorrow the headlines carry, ‘Smita and Ashalata died in a car crash’!”
Other trivia about Sri before we move on? Well, she… – wanted to be a director- contributed to production and costumes- came up with “Genesis” as the name for the new company of the veteran adman, Prahlad Kakkar.
Smi loved the sea and she wanted a sea-facing flat and yearned to enjoy the rain splashing through open windows. On her visits to see the house she was building, she would have chai from the kettle along with the workers. In fact, Smi wanted these very workers to be the first guests in her home! And they were indeed the first guests. Just that Smi had passed away by then!
The end of this fascinating life is also intriguing like the rest of it. During the shooting of Situm (1984), a handwriting expert apparently said that “She won’t live long!”.
She herself had this uncanny 6th sense, apparently. She had a premonition about AB’s Coolie accident the night before it happened!
About her own life, at different times in her life, Smi apparently told her younger sister that she wouldn’t live long. And she told Mahesh Bhatt that the lifeline was short.
The most freaky? She told actress, Poonam Dhillon that she’d die at 31!
And boy, was she right?
She did die at the age of 31. Her son was all of 2 weeks old at the time.
The most commonly held belief is that Smi died of Viral Encephalitis and most reporters write it as complications arising from childbirth. I am not sure of this though. Plus there are accounts that she died from medical negligence. And there are murmurs of murder. No, this is NOT substantiated at all.
I’d say the cause of death is a mystery.
Once Smi told a friend (Deepak Sawant) that when she died, she wanted to be sent off as a “Suhagan”. And as per her wishes, she was indeed decked up like a bride on her last journey. Random Trivia – DS has worked for decades with Amitabh Bachchan as well.
IN THE END
As I wrap this piece about Smi, I want to mention two people here. Shabana Azmi (SA) and Prateik Babbar (PB).
A. Shabana Azmi – SA and Smi started their careers almost at the same time and they had this rollercoaster relationship. SA apparently said they “were good colleagues who could never be friends.” Further, SA said, “She was born for the camera. It lingered over her face and she held it captive without the slightest effort. I felt both challenged and inspired by her as a co-actor. She was also very feminine and deeply traditional, at times easily intimidated. I think it’s these contradictions that were both her strength and her weakness. But it was also this that made her an artist who will always be spoken of when the finest actors of Indian cinema are counted.”
B. Prateik Babbar – I can write a LOT about the early days of PB and how he coped with the loss of her mother! But I think I would skip those. Have to mention that PB was raised by Smi’s mother.
As I end this, two things stand out about Smita Patil.
- She is if not THE MOST, one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever come across.
- It’s uncanny how her Reel and Real lives were so similar and so starkly different! Truth as they say, is stranger than fiction!
That’s about it. Thanks for indulging. Oh, who would you want to read about next?
- 1. All photos from Google / FB searches. I did not save the sources. Regret the laziness.
- 2. All info from online research that I did over a few days.
- 3. I don’t mean to slander. Am merely presenting what I found online. If I am wrong, please do point out.
- A lot of this has come from various reports, press releases around the time Maithali Rao’s book on Smita Patil came out (on Smi’s 60 birth anniversary). It’s titled Smita Patil, A Brief Incandescence. No, I have not read this.
PS: There are talks of someone making a biopic on her life. When it comes out, I will be there. The first day, first show. I am that smitten with her!
PPS: Secret wish to Universe – I’d love to work on crafting the biopic!
Other things that I did not know how to include in the essay?
- Smita did not know English as a child. She learned it herself by reading Hadley Chase novels and through her friends
- Smi would frequent FTII to see evening screenings with friends. In fact, she was so regular and frequent and commonplace, some people mistook her for a student/alumni.
Links that I read to come up with this essay? These are not in any order
- https://www.facebook.com/Smita-Patil-72882180294/photos/?ref=page_internal – great collection of photos