During the mid ’70s, Doordarshan’s Marathi news ‘Batmya’ garnered the highest TRPs. It was the smouldering presence of newsreader Smita Patil that set the monochrome screen on fire.
An impressed Shyam Benegal signed the dusky broadcaster for Nishant (1975).
Smita, along with Shabana Azmi, went on to become the mascot of meaningful cinema and earthy feminism. So ground-breaking was her work that at 29, a retrospective of her films was held in France, a first for an Asian actor. The world was her oyster, yet all Smita yearned for was a warm fireside and motherhood.
Mother she did become… but the brief incandescence was snuffed by fate in unpardonable hurry. Hers was a premature birth. The exit was as premature…
On her 65th birth anniversary, we bring you rare personal insights about legendary actor Smita Patil.
Smita Patil’s mother, the late Vidyatai Patil, was a nurse and social worker. Her husband (late politician Shivajirao Patil) worked for the Praja Samajwadi party. Their financial condition being unstable, her mother was reluctant to continue with the pregnancy when she conceived Smita after Anita, her older daughter (Manya is the youngest sister of the three). Vidyatai mentioned this at some point to Smita in her growing years. Smita often riled her mother about it saying, “Tula mi nako hote na” (you didn’t want me, right?).
Vidyatai had to drop young Smita to school before attending her duty. Those days a particular music played on the radio at 8 am daily. The minute Smita would hear that, she’d start crying. She understood it was time for her mother to leave for the hospital. She’d tell her mother, “Ma tu jao nako, mazi shala palun tak, tujha dawakhana palun tak” (Ma, don’t go, break my school and break down your dispensary).
As a kid, Smita loved participating in dramas and often played Jijabai. She was soft-hearted and often brought stray dogs and cats home. Once, she volunteered to take tea every day for a new mother (in Vidyatai’s hospital), who was neglected by her family for giving birth to a daughter.
Shyam Benegal first cast Smita in Charandas Chor, a children’s film, as a sort of a rehearsal before Nishant both in 1975. After that she did his Manthan (1976), a film set against the backdrop of Gujarat’s dairy industry with Benegal. A dialect coach helped Smita acquire a Gujarati tonality. When they we were shooting in a village near Rajkot, Smita had no qualms sitting with the local women squatting against the wall to get into the skin of her character.
Once Smita was shooting for Bhumika at Jyoti Studio, opposite her old house in Tardeo. Her mother, Vidyatai, got a call from director Shyam Benegal asking her to visit the set. There she learnt that Smita was unwilling to do the thrusts required in the song Tumhare bin jee na lage. Vidyatai told Smita, ‘You’ve taken up this profession of your own will. So whether your role is that of a prostitute or a goddess, you have to play it with devotion.’ The shot was okayed in the next take.
Again, there was a scene in Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) where Smita had to break down. But she was not getting it right. Benegal asked Govind Nihalani (cinematographer of the film) to set up the camera. He then went and gave her a tight slap. Smita was shocked while he got his shot. She won the National Award for the role.
Govind Nihalani photographed Smita beautifully in all of Benegal’s films and even his own Ardh Satya and Aakrosh in the ’80s. “Her face was not perfect. Her nose was tilted but the imperfections became a part of this powerful personality she projected,” once shared Benegal. Even after she became a star, Smita was happy to be clad in jeans, kurta (even her father’s) kolhapuri chappals and tie her hair in a casual knot. Once she was to meet a renowned editor for an interview at a restaurant. He couldn’t recognise her. When she introduced herself, they both burst out laughing.
Smita was crazy about kids. For Jabbar Patel’s Jait Re Jait (1977), they shot at Karnala Fort. Smita mixed with the tribal women, ate from their plates and carried their children around. Patel warned her that some kids had skin infection. But she didn’t care. Finally, she too developed one.
Actress Ashalata (played her sister-in-law in Umbartha - 1982 ) and Smita were close. Smita called her Mau. Once during the rains, Smita drove Ashalata, at neck-break speed to Khandala, pulling the brakes only at the Duke’s Nose peak. She laughed and told a scared Ashalata, “Imagine the fun if tomorrow the headlines carry, ‘Smita and Ashalata died in a car crash’!”
She was deeply humane.
Her building Rock Cliffe was under construction those days. She’d go across to the roadside tea-stall and get tea and biscuits for the labourers. She’d even have tea in the same glasses with them. Then once, she found out that the roof of her spot boy’s house had caved in due to the rains. She emptied her purse giving him all the money she’d carried that day.
Through the ’80s, Smita paired with Raj Babbar in Jawaab, Aaj Ki Awaaz and Dehleez among others. They fell in love and got married though Raj was already married to theatre personality Nadira. Smita was delighted to become a mother to Prateik (November 28, 1986).
A week later, she developed 104 degree fever. But she insisted on putting ice packs on her body and then nursed him. She loved mogras (jasmine). She’d sing the abhang mogra phoolla (sung by Lata Mangeshkar and written by Sant Dyaneshwar) to Prateik during the little time she had with him.
Eventually, she had to be hospitalised. She slipped into a coma on the way. She always had a premonition that she wouldn’t live long as she was born premature. She had shared this with her sister Manya. She had also told Mahesh Bhatt that the life line on her palm was short. Smita passed away on December 13, 1986 after developing septicaemia barely two weeks after the birth of Prateik. She was only 31.
Vidyatai, despite her grief, nurtured Smita’s dream - Prateik - with rare devotion.
She passed away in 2015.