No actress was better in championing role of an oppressed woman than Smita Patil

By Harsh Thakor*

On December 14th we commemorated the 35th death anniversary of Smita Patil. No Indian actress has as intensely explored the nature of opression of women 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, due to a miscarriage. The film industry lost a genius. Few artists in film world were as down to earth as Smita Patil. Smita Patil portrayed justice to social reality prevailing like no other actress of her day, apart from Shabana Azmi.

Smita was so natural that one virtually felt she was the very character herself.. The magnitude of her intensity in her roles confronting injustice was unmatched. She could express the rage of a thunderstorm bursting, the sweetness of river water or the beauty of a lotus in full bloom. Her facial expressions in different roles varied like the colours of a rainbow, taking malleability to depths rarely transcended.Smita’s acting brought out the element of realism as few ever did, taking conviction to regions rarely explored and broke the conventions in acting.

It is my sincere wish that a Smita Patel could be resurrected into Bollywood today with female opression having escalated with monopoly of higher castes at crescendo. She could have been symbolised a woman  challenging the exploitation of women to promote consumerism, striving for better working conditions and confronting casteist oppression and corruption  .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. I would have loved to witness Smita raise her voice or portray a character against beauty contests which are patronised by the forces of globalisation and promote selling women as a sex symbol.

Smita’s dedication to women’s causes and women empowerment was not revealed only through the roles she played on screen. Smita was also a part of the Women’s Centre in Mumbai and is known to have contributed the money earned from her awards to women’s organizations. She owned her sexuality, and would fight with directors if her roles required women to be portrayed subserviently, and was fiercely committed to changing societal perceptions about women.Smita Patil was born in 1955 in Pune to Shivajirao Patil who was a Maharashtrian politician and social worker, and Vidyatai Patil, nurse and social worker.

Smita and her sister Anita attended Maharashtrian medium school, Bhave Girls School (Now Renuka Devi School) where she was showed inclination towards  performing school plays. At home, since both her parents were involved with social work and spreading awareness of social issues, Smita and her sister had a positive upbringing. Her parents encouraged them to join the Rashtra Seva Dal (RSD) which at the time was not a political organization but simply a group interested in inculcating progressive ideas.

As a member of the RSD, Smita participated in many Bharat Darshan and Maharashtra Darshan tours, performing skits in remote villages to entertain, educate and serve the marginalized. The RSD challenged the RSS ideology conducted in these villages that brainwashed the people with Hindutva ideals championing the   ideas of egalitarianism, equality of faiths, and social justice .This shaped the later course of Smita’s life.

After graduating from Film and Television Institute of India, she became a newsreader for Doordarshan. She gained her baptism in the film world in Charandas Chor (1975) by filmmaker Shyam Benegal.

Smita was so natural that one virtually felt she was the very character itself. The magnitude of her intensity in her roles confronting 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 varied like the colours of a rainbow, taking malleability to depths rarely transcended.Smita’s acting brought out the element of realism as few ever did, taking conviction to regions rarely explored and broke the conventions in acting.

Film career

In films like ‘Bhumika’, ‘Manthan’, ‘Bazaar’,Mandi’ and ‘Mirch Masala’ ,in different aspects she portrayed the woman as a crusader against injustice..Smita’s roles also contributed a lot to inspire women to challenge injustice at it’s hardest point and extricate spirit of submissiveness amongst women at the very root. No actress could portray vengeance against injustice better.Smita Patil portrayed 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 rivals in real life with Shabana openly running Smita down and Smita often reprimanding Shabana for underestimating her. 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. I doubt even Azmi would have equalled Smita in films like ‘Bhumika’  or ‘Mirch Masala.’ Or even ‘Manthan.’

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 or most defining  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. 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, the contrast of the sexual aspirations of woman with men and instills confidence in a woman to traverse the most tortuous barriers 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. She displays  courage of a soldier 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, defining masculinity in no uncertain terms. 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.

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. .With remarkable prowess she portrays evolution within a person.

In ‘Bhumika’ (1977) co staring with Amol Palekar enacting character of Usha she reveals sensitivity and conviction in regions rarely traversed. 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 the domination of a woman by a man. 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 portrayed oppression and aspirations of a dalit woman to the very skin of the character. Girsih Karnad as Dr Rao is pioneering the cooperative movement .It is Bindu who 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 or the scene when she sees Dr.Rao played by Girish Karnad for the first time.

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.

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.

Freelance journalist, who has toured India, particularly Punjab, has written on mass movements

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