Remembering Smita Patil

“On her 25th death anniversary, Jitesh Pillai pays tribute to the legendary actress

I never met her. I had barely entered my teens when Smita Patil passed away – 25 years ago. But strangely, I was drawn to her. To her eyes, her voice, her performances. Then it all fell into place.

Three years ago, a voice full of staccato tones called me. I couldn’t decipher the somewhat Yankee accent through the crisscross of mobile lines. Two days later, Prateik was sitting in my office in torn jeans, a rocker jacket, a ganji and rubber slippers. There was an inexplicable melancholy in the ridges of the half-boy-half-man’s eyes. Memories came gliding back as he faltered around the words. I hugged him.

Like a puppy, within minutes, he was yammering to fill the air… movies, girlfriends and how he wanted to rechristen himself Mickey. Suddenly, I had become ‘J’ from ‘Sir’.

Like mother, like son. Smi, as she was known to loved ones, lived a complex, lacerating life both on screen and off it. Prateik is a limited edition version of her. Her half smile, her sense of wanting to belong, her wariness and her lack of artifice.

He’s inherited all that and more. Most of Smi’s friends are still unable to get over the shock that she went away at just 31. Without warning.

The actor zaps me even today with the hues in her portrayals as Uma in Bhumika or Sulabha in Umbartha. The poignancy in Bazaar and the fieryness of Sonbai in Mirch Masala seem mint fresh.

Every Smi performance is enshrined in my memory. Watch the eddies and currents churning in her mind when she essays the role of Uma in Bhumika. Based on Hansa Wadkar’s life, all of 22, Smi gave the role subtlety and subtext. Bhumika is textbook for anyone attempting to play the role of a showbiz actor.

Ditto her role in Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha (Marathi). Her seamless body language, her vulnerability, was all there on display. My other favourite films of her are Tarang and Jait Re Jait.

G Aravindan’s Chidambaram (Malayalam) is perhaps the only significant Smi film I’ve missed. While other actors make much ado about their pregnancies, I remember a heavily pregnant Smi giving superb performances in Thikana, Waaris and the zany Dance Dance.

Asha Bhosle remembers serving up piping varan bhat with dollops of ghee to the unassuming actress, who happily kneaded the balls of rice with her hands. They were tactile, rich, redolent with the experience and pathos. Just like her turns in Tarang, Giddh and Chakra. Despite being short-changed with an unsympathetic role in Arth, her performance as the schizophrenic actor was goose-flesh inducing.

She could never play the showbiz game, she would just play her parts. Her aai told me she was devastated when she was dropped at the nth hour from films like Paar and Sparsh. She cried for days on end when she had to do the masala song-and-dance routine in films like Namak Halal and some egregious B graders she was made to sign to prop the careers of those around her.

She lived life to the fullest. Old studio hands and directors are full of stories of her gregariousness, her charity and her joie. There are also many stories of betrayal and being let down by those she loved. Her pregnancy was reportedly fraught with medical complications and personal upheavals.

She really wanted to have a baby. The fortnight she spent with Prateik, she’d coo and sing the Marathi lullaby Mogara phulala to him into the night. I don’t know if it was her own carelessness or medical negligence, but Smi slipped away into another world when she was barely 31, leaving behind so many unanswered questions, unfulfilled promises and more importantly, a beautiful son who is yet to come to terms with the unbearable loss. I have lived with Smita through her movies, through her performances and through the reminiscences of those who loved and lost her. As Bhumika plays for the zillionth time on my DVD, I remind myself that grown up men don’t cry. ”

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