In the three decades since Smita Patil died – at the impossibly young age of 31 – she has continued to be one of Indian cinema’s biggest icons. ‘Smita Patil: ’, the latest biography of this rare talent, penned by Maithili Rao and published by Harper Collins, traces her journey from childhood to stardom, her controversial marriage and her untimely death. Excerpts.
It is easy enough to deconstruct a screen image and read the subtext, of intended and unintended meanings. It is a different matter altogether to construct the person from insights, memories, anecdotes gleaned from a spectrum of people whose life Smita touched – intensely, joyfully, painfully, poignantly or even briefly in passing. Fragments that contradict and complement each other, memories shared willingly or having to be drawn out, encounters narrated from the hindsight of political correctness … it is a journey of discovery.
So, what was Smita like as a person? Some words recur with metronomic regularity. Down to earth, warm, sincere, rooted, grounded, compassionate, sensitive, caring, carefree – myriad adjectives, with their infinite connotations, adding up to a woman with high emotional intelligence. Then there are contrary pairs: possessive and generous, demanding and giving, impulsive and pragmatic, ambitious and unworldly, fun loving and moody. Now, these contrarian combinations are what intrigue us. Mohan Agashe says: ‘I describe her as an illusion. She was not intelligent or intellectual but sensitive. Intense. And there were people all over the world who cared for her. Old John Warrington [the late British film critic, regular at our film festivals] was so smitten. From Warrington to a Polish actor, a Swedish director, they were all in love with her. She was so intense, so charming. One would be scared that she’d go mad when she started laughing.’ So speaks the psychiatrist, friend from her teen years and costar of many films.
Anita’s favourite term for her sister is: free bird. A free spirit. This free-spirited attitude was innate to her right from childhood to the time she became an actor and then a star. Smita wanted to be at the wheel, drive all the time. She’d tell the driver, tum peechhe baitho. She was also very impatient. If somebody misbehaved on the road, did not follow the rules, she’d give them the choicest gaalis. Anita who characterizes herself as being an obedient child marvels at how Smita had an inborn sense of adventure. Smita had this great craving to drive a jhonga – the army jeep. She had a friend, Dilshad (she was one of the ADs on Attenborough’s Gandhi), who was just as crazy. ‘I don’t know how the hell they got hold of a jhonga. They drove all the way from Delhi to Bombay in those days! It was scary. I told Smi: think of your face. What’ll happen to your career if anything happens to your face! She didn’t give a damn. What’ll happen, she’d say without a care. Chambal was not safe at that time. Her only condition was: Don’t tell Maa. And my condition was, she had to call every night. It had to be on a landline of course. It did not strike her even once what’d happen to her career if anything went wrong. Until she reached Bombay, my heart was in my mouth.’ Anita adds: The girls wore turbans, pants and shirts, as if that was protection enough.
Smita’s first car was a small Fiat, a two-seater according to Hitendra Ghosh. She dragged him home and wanted him to ride with her when she drove. He was a bit scared, he confesses. He told her, ‘You are driving in Tardeo and what if you go and dash into something?’ But drive with her he had to. Friends couldn’t be let off so easily. This desire to drive extended to bikes too. Smita graduated from bicycle to scooter in Pune, as most Pune girls did. She wanted to drive a big motorbike. And she pestered Hitu to somehow help her do this. He had become part of the family, and when they were staying on Forjett Street, their top-floor flat had a room to the side as soon as you entered. Smita’s father was not a minister anymore and the Patils were often out of Bombay, on their social work. Though Hitu had PG digs nearby in Tardeo, it was an unwritten rule that he would come and stay at the Patil house in the parents’ absence. Smita badgered Hitu to get her to ride a big bike. He realized that Aladin, a sound engineer, lived in the same building as Smita. Aladin had two sons and they had a bike. Hitu approached them, and asked if they could teach Smita. They readily agreed and taught Smita in a small Tardeo lane. Later, on some other film unit, a lot of bikes were brought for the shoot. Smita asked the stuntman to teach her to ride a bike properly. And he obliged. Ever since, she rode a bike whenever she could. It is something Shabana speaks of with awe: when they were together shooting for Mandi, Shabana learnt that the tomboy who played volleyball with the boys could also ride a bike. Difficult to imagine the traditional Smita we see in handloom saris as a biker girl. …
She did not seek the press to publicize her commitment to work for the good of society. She screened Umbartha to raise funds for the Women’s Centre, so that they could buy a two room place in Kalina. A politician’s daughter who did campaign for him in his constituency but was not interested in electoral politics at all. Helping the marginalized was what she believed in. … Smita was not India’s Hanoi Jane who sent the Pentagon into apoplexy. Nor was she the elegant Vanessa, of the theatre royalty Redgraves, whose radical liberalism pierced Conservative armour even more sharply because they saw it as apostasy from one of their own. Feminism in India was concerned with getting women an equal wage, and protection from domestic violence and police brutality in concrete, countable ways. This was something close to Smita’s heart because her mother and sister Anita – along with other role model figures – were active in this field. Yet, she had to face the scepticism of orthodox feminism’s doubting devis. Sonal Shukla who was very active then (she now runs Vacha, a resource centre for schoolgirls) confesses that a film star’s motives were usually suspect because it could be a publicity gambit. She admits Smita did win them over with her sincerity and transparent commitment to the cause. Flavia Agnes, lawyer and founder of Majlis, describes how closely Smita followed the Mathura rape case and the work done by feminists to change the law applicable to custodial rape. It is no surprise that Smita was invited by the Indian government to participate in an International Women’s Conference organized by the UN as part of the Women’s Decade in 1985.
(Excerpts from ‘Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence’ by Maithili Rao; Published by Harper )