The Incandescence of Smita Patil
Smita Patil, the book, is a detailed chronicle of the actresses’ work. It is the sum total of the amazing roles essayed in an eventful career by an actress with star quality, whose incandescence though brief, left enough light behind to illuminate the screen even three decades later.
Author: Maithili Rao
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins India (19 October 2015)
Veteran journalist Maithili Rao brings her long experience of watching and commenting on films to trace the graph of Smita Patil’s growth as an actress, taking us from her first film for Arun Khopkar to her roles in parallel cinema through her foray into mainstream cinema and regional films. This all in the book written by Maithili – Smita Patil : A Brief Incandescence .
Smita the actress is supremely evident in this book, Smita the woman weaves in and out. Rao tells us in the introduction that the book is not a collection of anecdotes. Though the anecdotes that show us a Smita we do not know outside the screen are immensely valuable in helping us understand who she was and what went into the making of an actress whose magnetism on screen was undeniable. Through them, one can piece together Smita Patil’s mental and emotional makeup: passionate, emotional, a daredevil at times fond of bikes and fast cars which she drove without fear, stubborn about getting her way. And yet she was always caring; nurturing others like a mother. A quality that helped her identify with almost anyone from any walk of life, and which helped her on screen to mirror the body language and mannerisms of characters as varied as a slum woman, a middle class wife or a courtesan.
The early chapters do detail Smita’s childhood and years as a school girl. The relationships she welded through these and subsequent years would remain close through her later life, with even the stardom she achieved unable to affect them. So we meet Mohan Agahse, and Subhash Awchat and his then wife Sumita, Hitendra Ghosh and Jhelum Paranjpe among others. Later she would befriend ‘soul sister’ Aruna Vikas Patil, Rauf Ahmed and Ayesha Kagal, among others.
Tracing the series of events that led to Smita playing the heroine in Khopkar’s Teevra Madhyam to being signed on by Shyam Benegal for Charandas Chor, the first of the many Benegal films that would showcase the actresses’ talent, Rao includes telling quotes from both filmmakers. She quotes Khopkar as saying, “Smita was so hard working. She knew dancing, but playing the tanpura is very different. She had to learn the proper rhythm…and which note meant what. She worked on it.” And Bengal’s quote runs “I could tell from the very beginning, from what I saw on TV and Khopkar’s film. I could tell this girl would photograph brilliantly…A person with a sympathetic presence allows you access as a human being…this natural projection, whichever way she felt, you could see it on her face.”
Time and again, Rao also plumbs the rivalry between two of parallel cinema’s favourite heroines. If Smita tips the balance as the scene stealer, and the one who could hide the fact that she was on a game of oneupmanship against her rival, while Shabana gave vent to digs and barbs (that she has since publicly retracted); Shabana comes up trumps in her effort to straddle the two worlds of parallel and commercial cinema, thanks to the more careful choices she made.
The film critic in Rao takes charge as Smita’s career kicks off. And she explains, narrates and expounds on each film, with Smita’s handling of her role in each as the focus. While invaluable to students of cinema or those wishing to look at this fertile period of creative enterprise, sometimes Rao’s superlatives while dealing with Smita tend to get repetitive.
Once done with Smita’s “Dasavataras”, each a fine unforgettable role, explained in detail within the context of the film, Rao moves on to the Ensemble films where some of India’s best actors worked together to create great cinema. Bhavani Bhavai, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai, Mandi and Mirch Masala. To Smita’s credit, she holds her own against, as Rao reminds us, professionally trained actors.
The book then moves to the eighties. Where the actress swung between Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati for TV, Govind Nihalani’s Akhrosh and Ardh Satya and singing Aaj rapat jaaye with Amitabh in the rain…a song which reportedly made her shed tears once she had finished shooting it. Her critical pen sharpened now, Rao lists the “inexcusably long” list of “bad films” Smita took on. And relentlessly outlines the debacle of each film, though never failing to point out how Smita held her own despite a bad story line and poor direction. Also included is the distress the actress faced on having to ‘whiten up’ to suit the tastes of commercial audiences, and a strange incident that talks about the possessiveness she developed about her makeup man, who could strike the right balance between making her look fairer and her naturalness.
Through the book, the image that shines out is of an actor who assimilated herself into the surroundings of a scene and script and let her body language and her quiet beauty and unerring sense of style create characters and cameos that shine through despite other equally talented co actors, or stand out from the mire of a badly made film.
The chapter titled, “The woman behind the image”, is drawn in swift sweeping strokes that give glimpses of Smita’s relationships and the responses of those close to her. However, there is little discussion on the Raj Babbar relationship. Rao clearly says she has preferred to steer clear of it. Whether it is because she has chosen to write a critical assessment of the actress, or because it is an authorized biography, is not made clear, but her decision is worthy of respect, even if it disappoints those who many pick up the book hoping for salacious details. The angst of a mother who disapproves of her daughter’s choice of partner, and the mending of the relationship through the months of Smita’s pregnancy make for poignant reading, as we know exactly where the story of her life is leading.
When the story ends, there is the feeling that there is a sudden void. A sparkling, laughing, passionate woman and one of India’s most talented actresses is snuffed out prematurely, and the finality of it is heart wrenching.
Rao’s book revisits that feeling that every Smita fan must have experienced thirty years ago, and the regret is as sharply felt as when it happened.
Long first person reminiscences by Rauf Ahmed, Jitesh Pillai, Nandita Das, among others, wind up the last chapter of the book which also carries a filmography of the actress.
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