The Unforgettable Smita Patil
A journalist recounts an interview with legendary actor Smita Patil—his first with a famous celebrity—and the epic gaffe that almost lost it all
In my youthful exuberance I had described her as “a long-stemmed, coffee-coloured lily”, as she wafted like a breath of fresh air into the lobby of the hotel in Kolkata’s Little Russell Street. This was way back in 1985, a couple of years after I had landed my desk job with The Statesman. And the woman I had waxed eloquent about was the distinguished actor, Smita Patil, who had blazed a trail, as they say, as one of the best-known faces of parallel cinema. Although her career as an actor started earlier, she came into the limelight as the feisty Bindu in Shyam Benegal’s 1976 film, Manthan, about Verghese Kurien’s milk cooperative movement in Gujarat.
I still get goosebumps as I recall the extraordinary performances of Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah, who were so convincing in their roles, that for quite some time I was absolutely sure that Benegal had picked up these ‘naturals’ straight from some rural outpost. Later, Patil revealed, when she was shooting for Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati, the auteur asked her to try on the costume for the character. She changed, and Ray remarked: “It is so simple to turn you into a peasant.”
Here was Smita Patil wearing outsized glares, a smart young woman without any Bollywood airs. She had arrived by the early morning flight. Her long hair was not in place and her nail varnish was chipped, but she was unruffled otherwise. Her generous mouth was lightly lipsticked. That, and the mascara on her lashes, were the only traces of make-up on her. Her luminous eyes were a trifle close-set and that made them look larger than they actually were. No wonder they looked so intense. The ‘rustic’ spoke fluently in English. The only thing that seemed out of sync was the bright red streak of sindoor in her parting. But she is single, I said to myself. She brushed aside my question with a laugh when we were inside the car: “But then I wear it on and off. Well, I am almost married. That will start another story. The whole tape will run out.” It was soon after my interview was published at the end of June that it was revealed amidst a public outcry that Smita Patil had married actor Raj Babbar, who had left his wife Nadira to do so. And Smita was known to espouse women’s causes.
Smita Patil was in Calcutta for the shoot of Debshishu, a Bengali film, and she was about to leave for the studio in Tollygunge. I was feeling a bit awkward to approach her. Lugging around a ghetto blaster that belonged to my mother, I wondered if she would be put off by it. But she was most affable and accommodating, and agreed to be interviewed inside the car that was to take her to Tollygunge. It was my first interview of an actor and it went off remarkably well.
Smita Patil as Seeta in the 1985 film Debshishu
I asked her a range of questions and she remained unperturbed even when I asked her about her putative ‘rival’. Debshishu is a powerful study of the tragic consequences of poverty and superstition on human lives—the kind of serious films that were being made in those days. Patil was, for the umpteenth time, playing a poor villager’s wife. Wasn’t ‘new cinema’ too, becoming formulaic? She did agree, but stressed that social realism was one of the most “important and vast” aspects of Indian life, as most of India lived in villages, and a good percentage of them lived below the poverty line.
“Small cinema began with the portrayal of the real Indian woman, who happens to be very much a ‘zamin ki aurat’ ... ‘mitti ki aurat’ (woman of the earth). I am continuing to do earthy roles because I am that sort of a person myself. I was fortunate that I could extend the kind of person I am to the roles that were given to me in the beginning of my career.” Hers was a political family and her parents would “breathe, eat and live by J.P. (Jayaprakash Narayan) and his socialist party”. So she and her family travelled all over the country doing a programmed Bharat Darshan based on national integration.
She was delighted that Greek–French film director Costa-Gavras had organized a retrospective of her films in France, and after Bhumika, a woman “touched me on the shoulder, looked into my eyes and said ‘Do you know, that is my story’.” Bhumika was the biopic of Hansa Wadkar, a screen and stage actress from the 1930s and 40s.
Patil revealed that she wanted to make films on “very serious women’s issues”, and added, as if prescient, “There is a project on rape. The kind of trials a molested woman has to go through.”
We parted company when we reached the studio. I tried to play the recording. Silence. Not even a sigh. What’s gone wrong? I discovered soon that the battery was down. How was I going to tell her this? Against my better judgment, I broke the news during the lunch break. No fireworks. Nothing. A week later, I met her again. That was the last time I saw her.
Smita Patil died from childbirth complications on 13 December 1986, at the age of 31. Her son is actor Prateik Babbar.