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Feisty Yet Vulnerable, Smita Patil Played Everywoman On Screen

On her death anniversary, we pay a tribute to Smita Patil, the actor who introduced Indian Cinema to feminism.

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Smita Patil is one of the most talented actresses in Indian cinema.
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No discussion of meaningful Indian cinema is possible without Smita Patil. She was possibly the first feminist actor on the Indian screen. In a career spanning just over a decade, Patil is unparalleled in the films she did and the roles she breathed life into. Immensely talented and intense, the women she portrayed on celluloid were as real as they were feisty.

While it’s virtually impossible to choose her best films, here’s taking a look at some of the unforgettable characters she created on-screen on her death anniversary.

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Sonbai, Mirch Masala

When you think of Smita Patil’s films, one of the first images is perhaps of her staring into the camera silently in the last scene of Mirch Masala (1987) as the village women in the spice factory unite in the assault of the lecherous subedar played by Naseeruddin Shah. Patil played Sonbai in this beautiful Ketan Mehta film, a village belle who refuses to submit to the subedar’s advances (strengthened by a village of largely sexist men). Patil, by investing Sonbai’s vulnerability with indomitable strength and a fiery independence, elevates the character to be an Everywoman.

Smita Patil in a still from <i>Mirch Masala.</i>
Smita Patil in a still from Mirch Masala.
She blossomed on camera. An instinctive and spontaneous actor, she did not over-analyse her roles and the audience loved her spontaneity.
Shyam Benegal, Filmmaker

Sulabha Mahajan, Umbartha

Directed by Dr Jabbar Patel in the National Award-winning Marthi film Umbartha (1982), Patil plays Sulabha Mahajan who goes against her conservative husband (Girish Karnad) and mother-in-law’s wishes to build her own identity and career. She takes up the extremely challenging job as a superintendent of a women’s reformatory home, and refuses to compromise with her husband’s adultery. It’s one of her strongest performances with a very strong feminist stand.

Smita Patil in a still from <i>Umbartha</i>.
Smita Patil in a still from Umbartha.
We had so much in common; we came from similar backgrounds, were launched by the same director, had similar aesthetics and worked in the same kind of cinema. Today, in public memory, Smita and I are so closely bonded together that I feel I could well be Shabana Patil and she, Smita Azmi! She had a short career span and yet 29 years after she passed away, parallel cinema in India will never be mentioned without Smita Patil’s name emblazoned in golden letters.
Shabana Azmi
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Usha, Bhumika

Based on the memoirs of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar, Patil’s Usha in the 1977 Bhumika won her a National Award. The transition of a teenage star into a psychologically lacerated woman who keeps searching for independence, love and respect was portrayed by Patil in all its heart-breaking layers as only she could. She was only 21 when she acted in Bhumika.

A still from <i>Bhumika</i>.
A still from Bhumika.
Smi (as she is fondly called) was already thinking of direction. On the sets of Chidambaram, there is a beautiful photograph of her behind the camera of cinematographer Shaji Karun. She was an avid reader and interested in script writing. 
Anita Patil-Deshmukh, Smita Patil’s elder sister

Zeenat, Mandi

A dark look at sexual politics and the venerability of traditions, Shyam Benegal’s 1983 film Mandi had an outstandingly talented cast. And Patil excelled as the virginal prize of the brothel, who is the brothel madam’s (played by Shabana Azmi) favourite, a young girl who oscillates between an alluring boldness and shyness and displays a dubious ingenuity.

Soni Razdan, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in a still from  <i>Mandi</i>.
Soni Razdan, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil in a still from Mandi.
“I always fall short of words when asked to speak of Smita or our association. There was this unusual way of how she conducted herself, her life. I had the opportunity of working with her, she looked gentle but she was a strong woman. She was committed not only towards her work but to her beliefs,” he said. 
Amitabh Bachchan, Actor
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Kavita, Arth

Smita Patil played the quintessential other woman Kavita in this iconic 1982 Mahesh Bhatt film - but with a huge difference. Instead of the conventional seductress, Patil breathed life - and indeed bared her soul - to portray a passionate, at times ruthless yet fragile woman reeling under mental illness, and her attempts to find unconditional love. One of her many phenomenal performances, Patil managed to connect with an audience rooting for the abandoned wife (played by Shabana Azmi) with an honesty rarely seen in Hindi films.

Smita Patil with Kulbhushan Kharbanda in a still from <i>Arth</i>.
Smita Patil with Kulbhushan Kharbanda in a still from Arth.
Smita was a sponge. She just absorbed. She would just look at you, inhale you and add something, bring up a cocktail. It became a deadly cocktail. Why she became so extraordinary in Arth was because she was living that life simultaneously. She would come looking tired in the morning and sort of relive the aftershocks of private misery … then she would get into the cinematic space and exhale the essence of what was captured in those scenes. You could not leave an impact like that without being there. She was in that space.
Mahesh Bhatt, Filmmaker

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 17 October 2016. It is being republished to mark Smita Patil’s death anniversary.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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