Her Last Few Hours: Smita Patil Loved Life Till the End
A tribute on the legendary actor’s death anniversary.
13 December 1986. The bleary eyed city had barely started on its mid-morning chores when a hint of the terrible tragedy that was to follow first came. Following a PTI flash, the afternoon papers screamed, ‘Smita Patil critical!’ The suspense continued all evening and then at 12.30 in the night, the voice over the phone said, ‘It’s all over!” A mere 12 hours later, the hideous suggestion had become an irrevocable fact. Smita Patil was no more. The city was shocked. After Guru Dutt’s demise, some two decades ago, this was possibly another untimely tragedy to have hit the film industry. At 31, she died an idol, a cult figure reaching beyond her grave. As Kaifi Azmi said in his inaugural speech at a charity function, ‘Smita Patil is not dead. Her son is still amongst us.’
12 December 1986 begins like any other ordinary day. At 6 AM, when the baby begins to cry, Smita turns in bed, feeling slightly weak. Then softly, very softly, taking care not to wake up husband Raj, who has been up all night working for Hope ‘86, she moves out of the room, carrying the baby to the nursery. There, she flops herself on the bed, and nurses the baby, thinking for the hundredth time of all the wonderful things she will share with him, when he grows up.
He is going to be a great man. Of that, Smita is absolutely certain. No other child, when he is only six days old, could lift his head and blink his eyes the way he did. She often wonders if he would be an actor like his parents or a politician like his grandfather. She likes the name Prateik and calls him by that name while playing with his tiny hands, laughing, feeling happy. Only the baby isn’t in the mood. Cranky and a little restless, he keeps turning his head away from her.
Smita realizes that it’s her body temperature that is annoying the baby. She’s been feverish for the last two days and hasn’t touched the baby, just in case he catches the virus. But today, she decides she isn’t going to deprive him. So Smita puts a damp cloth around her and feeds him. It helps and after a while, the baby falls fast asleep. Next, Smita goes to wake up Raj. He has to attend the Action Committee meetings at 10 am. She touches his forehead to check if his fever has subsided. It’s normal. ‘Thank God,’ Smita sighs. It’s going to be a hectic day for Raj. He’s been working the entire month for the show and she hopes for his sake that everything goes all right. After all, this is the first time that Raj is actively involved in an event like this and Smita wants it to be a success.
An hour later, when Raj leaves, Smita attends to her daily chores. She washes her hair and like always worries about her falling hair. She recalls her first meeting with Raj on the sets of Bheegi Palkein. ‘You have an old world look,’ he had said to her. Smita is feeling nostalgic. Full of old memories, she remembers her sisters. Anita, whom she calls Tai, has played surrogate mother to Smita in childhood. Younger sister Manya, Smita has mothered all along. She remembers the time when, as children, they played around their favorite banyan tree in the backyard of their old house in Pune, while their mother sang Marathi folk songs.
Rinsing her hair, she decides that she must copy all those songs in her note-book today. ‘Why do you need them now?’ her mother asks surprised by Smita’s sudden passion to collect them. ‘Just like that, I feel like singing them once again.’ Smita spends a major part of the morning scribbling the songs dictated by her mother. Just like old times, mother and daughter sit by the window, drinking tea from large mugs. It’s sometime in the evening that Smita begins to feel slightly melancholic. Somewhere in her body, a slight ache has begun.
At 10.30 the doctor comes in for his regular check-up. ‘There is slight fever, but nothing to worry about,’ he says, putting her on saline. Then he leaves for his next visit. Perhaps all she needs is rest. Smita lies on the bed, trying to read. She can’t. Memories crowd her mind as she stares at the bottle, waiting for the drip to get over.
Maya, her hair-dresser, drops by with a copy of the video cassette of her godbharai function. ‘The tape is only of 30 minutes,’ informs Maya. ‘We’ll complete it during the naming ceremony, when Tai and Manya are here. They haven’t been photographed with the baby at all,” says Smita. Then, as an afterthought, adds, ‘Maya, I’m not feeling too good. Pray for me, please. Pray that I get well soon.’ ‘Silly girl, nothing has happened to you,’ Maya replies ruffling Smita’s hair affectionately. Though the two women have been working together for only a couple of years, they share a deep bond.
The last two years have been exceptionally trying for Smita. Maya had often witnessed Smita’s bouts of depression and had, at times, even consoled her. Protective to the point of being maternal, Maya did not hesitate to scold her if she found Smita worrying unnecessarily. Today, once again, she reprimands her with, ‘Vedi ahes ka, kay jhala ahe tula ki itki ghabarte?’ (Are you mad? What has happened to you that you are so worried?)
Smita tries not to worry or think too much. Two hours later, when the first bottle of saline is over, Smita, who has by now become impatient, insists that she change the room. Cuddling up to her mother she says, ‘Ma, I haven’t been good to you these last two years. I have quarrelled with you all the time. But now it will all be fine. Now I have sorted out my problems and everything is going to be just fine.’ She feels restless and low and is hankering for contact. To Poonam Dhillon, who calls her at 3 PM, Smita says that she is feeling low. ‘All women feel like this after pregnancy,’ jokes Poonam. ‘Besides, now that you have all that you have always wanted, why worry?’ ‘That’s true,’ Smita muses, ‘but I’m feeling very uneasy. Why don’t you come home just now? We can sit and chat, I will feel better.’
Poonam, who is calling from the sets, promises to drop by. Then as she says goodbye, Poonam coughs and the hysterical mother that Smita is, she shrieks, ‘Don’t come if you have fever. I don’t want my baby to catch an infection.’ Then almost laughingly adds, ‘I’ll be okay in a few hours. I always go through such moments.’
In the evening, by the time Raj returns from his meeting, Smita’s tubes have been removed and she’s already feeling better. Humming a tune, she pulls out the clothes that Raj plans to wear for the Hope ’86 function.
She pleads with him to let her accompany him for the show. ‘I’m feeling better. I always do when you are with me. Let me come along too. When will I ever get to see a show like this?’ But Raj isn’t willing. He tucks her into bed, covers her with a blanket and goes into the bathroom for a shower. He returns barely 10 minutes later to find Smita looking pale as chalk, doubled up with convulsions, cringing in pain and vomiting blood. He panics. Moments later, quick arrangements are made to get in touch with the doctor.
‘I won’t go to the hospital,’ Smita pleads, as they put her on the stretcher. ‘I don’t want to be away from my baby. Don’t take me to the hospital. Please don’t take me away from him. I want to be at home with everybody.’ Her hysteria increases as she weeps and argues with Raj and her mother. Then somewhere anger gives way to fatigue and Smita leans on Raj’s shoulder and falls asleep. It’s only when they reach the hospital that they realize that Smita isn’t sleeping, but has slipped into a coma.
News of her critical situation spreads rapidly. In a couple of hours, a lot of people from the film industry and the press have gathered at Jaslok hospital. Everyone has only one question, ‘How is she?’ The hospital staff had only one answer. ‘She is the same!’
Worried visitors do all they can to extract further information. Different people have different reasons for her illness. Some say its meningitis, some say viral encephalitis, some say its disseminated intravascular coagulapathy, some say it is DSC and others describe it as stress. The speculations continue while every half an hour a fresh health bulletin is circulated.
Its late evening, somebody comes down and says that she has finally stopped bleeding, but now it’s her blood pressure that is falling. Smita is on the respirator and twenty doctors are examining her. Some say her brain has stopped functioning but the doctors still have hope.
In a room filled with people clad in white, Vidya Patil, who had been unconscious for long hours, now sits in a daze staring at her daughter’s photograph ‘Her brain gave away,’ says Vidya Patil, Smita’s mother, the next morning at the funeral held at her daughter’s Bandra residence. ‘Otherwise my daughter was a fighter. She fought all her battles, be it her career or her personal life. She would have fought death too, if only her brain hadn’t let her down’ says Vidya, before she breaks down again. Every time tears fill her eyes she wipes them away angrily. Shivaji Patil, Smita’s father, watches his wife quietly from a corner. There is no trace of emotion on his face, or rather he has suppressed all emotions for the time being.
Hours pass by as more visitors in white fill the room. They offer condolences but Vidya Patil is inconsolable. Shivaji Patil walks towards his wife and sits by her side holding her hand. ‘The loss is ours,’ he whispers to her in Marathi. ‘The world will continue and life will move on. What is unforgivable is that we lost her through negligence. If only we had been more careful!’
It is said that a dear friend once read her palm and predicted that Smita Patil would die early and she was not surprised. ‘I don’t mind, but as long as I live, I want to lead a healthy and wholesome life. A life I believe in. In fact I’ll be happy if I can cross my thirties,’ Smita had once said in an interview.
Perhaps she had a premonition and this reflected in the way she raced through life. In just a decade, Smita graduated from a TV announcer to become an actress to reckon with. The youngest star honored with a Padmashri, she was the first Indian actress to be honored with a retrospective abroad. When that happened her detractors said, ‘Isn’t she too young for such a big honour? After all, her career spanned only a decade. There is still plenty of time. What’s the hurry?’
There was, for somebody up there knew that there was very little time. And in that time, god wanted Smita to live life fully and passionately. The way Smita wanted to.
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. You can follow her on Twitter @bhawanasomaaya. Blog: http://bhawanasomaaya.com/blogs/@bhawanasomaaya)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 12 December 2016. It is now being republished to mark Smita Patil’s death anniversary.)
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