18 years back I was lucky to see live Urdu and Hindi theatre pioneer Habib Tanvir’s play Charandas Chor. This play in 1975 had been made into a feature film by the great Shyam Benegal, and this movie gave us one of our most accomplished actresses ever, Smita Patil. Today October 17th is her birthday.
When Shyam Benegal discovered her, Smita was already an accomplished photographer and newsreader on Doordarshan. Initially she acted in only ‘art’ movies or what was called parallel cinema. It was in this period that parallel cinema, earlier associated with regional movies, made a serious expansion into Hindi cinema as well, and gave us many new actors/actresses including Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Amol Palekar, Farookh Sheikh, Deepti Naval, Shabana Azmi, and Smita Patil.
Smita during initial years totally refused commercial film roles. In this period she won two National Film awards for best actress. The first was for Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika starring Smita , Naseer, Amol Palekar and Anant Nag. Smita played the role of the well known Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. Interestingly, Bhumika movie was made partly in black and white ( Hansa/Smita’s past) and partly in colour ( Hansa/Smita’s present). This was to tide over financial difficulties, a major problem of parallel cinema.
Smita’s 2nd National film award for best actress was for Chakra, where she played the role of a slum dweller. Smita, to impart realism, actually visited slums of Mumbai to prepare for the role. The film also won for her the filmfare award for best actress and the best actor award for Naseeruddin Shah.
Arth, Mandi, Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Manthan and Mirch Masala were other movies in which she got rave reviews and high critical acclaim. Commercial cinema makers continued to woo her and in turn she too relented and started acting in commercial movies as well. Two such movies were Namak Halaal and Shakti where she acted opposite the Shahenshah, Amitabh Bachchan.
Smita’s role in Shakti was providential. Neetu Singh was supposed to act but the movie got delayed by three years and not only Neetu had retired, Smita too had relented on her steadfast refusal to act in commercial cinema. Shakti, of course remains the one and only movie featuring both Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, but Smita’s role was noticed as well. The song Jaane kaise kab hua ikrar ho gaya remains one of Kishore-Lata’s top duets and showed Smita in a glamorous avatar.
Similarly Namak Halaal‘s song Aaj rapat jaye to is one of the best ever Kishore-Asha duets. However reportedly Smita was very upset with the song and after it was shot , she locked herself up in her room and cried for hours. It was only Amitabh who could put her at ease. Smita and Amitabh’s pairing was very much appreciated in this super-hit movie.
Interestingly, Smita Patil’s husband Raj Babbar was supposed to act in both Shakti and Namak Halaal but it could not be. In Shakti he was replaced by Amitabh Bachchan since the producers-director sensed it a once in a lifetime opportunity for a Dilip Kumar-Amitabh movie. In Namak Halaal, he was replaced by Shashi Kapoor.
Smita left us young. She passed away at the age of 31. However her memories will always remain with us.