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Smita Patil, the Amazing Actress of Indian Parallel Cinema

Ravi is an avid movie and theatre buff and loves films that surprise him. He specializes in dissecting movies and recommending the best ones

The undisputed queen of the parallel art cinema movement from the 1970s, Smita Patil, portrayed some of the boldest, bravest, and feistiest female protagonists, thus leaving an indelible stamp of excellence within the annals of world cinema.

The undisputed queen of the parallel art cinema movement from the 1970s, Smita Patil, portrayed some of the boldest, bravest, and feistiest female protagonists, thus leaving an indelible stamp of excellence within the annals of world cinema.

The Parallel Cinema Movement

Indian cinema, or Bollywood as it is called colloquially, has two faces:

  • The quintessential commercial movie: This is the formulaic stuff made for the masses with song-and-dance sequences, revenge, love, sacrifice, and finally, victory for the hero.
  • The art movie: This is also called parallel cinema and focuses on the realities in Indian society, the endless struggles of the common man, his sorrows, his forays against the system, and finally, the little victories in his life that keep him going forward.

Parallel cinema originated in the 1950s in West Bengal, with Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak some of the key filmmakers leading the movement. These filmmakers made iconic movies like Neecha Nagar in 1946 and Do Bhiga Zamin in 1954 that earned international acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival.

Rise of Hindi-Language Cinema

It was only later in the 1970s and 1980s that this movement broke into western India with the advent of movies made in the Hindi language. The Hindi language ensured a pan-India appreciation of these movies, and a slew of new filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Saeed Mirza, and Govind Nihalani entered the scene, stamping their indelible impact on the silver screen.

Shyam Benegal, in particular, was the most celebrated of these new-age filmmakers. He was not only a pioneer in socio-political movies but is also credited for discovering some of the most iconic actors of the art cinema, including Smita Patil, one of the most accomplished actresses ever to grace Indian cinema.

Despite her unexpected early demise at the mere age of 31, Smita Patil has left behind such a monumental legacy of work that no other actor has been able to replicate in impact or versatility.

Despite her unexpected demise at the age of 31, Smita Patil left behind a monumental legacy of work that no other actor has replicated it in impact or versatility.

Despite her unexpected demise at the age of 31, Smita Patil left behind a monumental legacy of work that no other actor has replicated it in impact or versatility.

The Making of Smita Patil

Smita was born on 17th October 1955 in Pune into a political family to Shivaji Rao Patil and Vidyatai Patil. She had a conservative Maharashtrian upbringing and studied till school in Pune. Later her family moved to Mumbai, where she enrolled as a student at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and the Theatre Academy.

Her first television exposure came when she was selected as a newscaster on Doordarshan, the Government owned television network. And this was when the famed director Shyam Benegal spotted her.

Shyam Benegal Discovers Patil

He was mesmerized by her face. It was an unconventional face with dusky skin, smoldering eyes, and earthy looks. As Benegal said later in an interview,

“I have a way, I don’t know what it is… of being able to tell how people will photograph. With Smita, no one would think that she would make a film star because in India you have this bias against darker skin. It is ridiculous but that is the way it is. We are one of the most colour-conscious people in the world. How does having an attractive personality translate in physical terms? That is very difficult to understand, but sometimes you know that this person has it. I felt that from the beginning, from what I saw on TV and Khopkar’s film. I could tell that this girl would photograph brilliantly.”

He chose to cast Patil in her first film, Charandas Chor (1975). This was followed by a slew of strong, women-centric movies like Manthan, Bhumika, Kondura, and Bazaar. The parallel cinema got a new superstar as Smita Patil’s performances captivated the masses and intellectuals alike. Patil quickly became Benegal’s favorite, doing most of his films in the 1970s and 1980s.

Smita Patil was not only a good performer, but her regular looks and deglamorized persona made her the face of the common man.

Smita Patil was not only a good performer, but her regular looks and deglamorized persona made her the face of the common man.

Face of the Common Woman

Smita Patil was not only a good performer, but her regular looks and deglamorized persona made her the face of the common woman. This was the very reason that her movies became a rage among the women who flocked to the theatres to see “themselves” on screen.

Patil cut through the rose-tinted world of the commercial movies and showed the viewers the real face, a face with daily struggles, troubles, and little victories to keep the morale high to fight yet another day. As Smita, herself said in a 1985 interview about her choice of movies,

“Small cinema began with the portrayal of the real Indian woman, who happens to be very much a ‘zamin ki aurat’ … ‘mitti ki aurat’ (woman of the earth). I am continuing to do earthy roles because I am that sort of a person myself. I was fortunate that I could extend the kind of person I am to the roles that were given to me in the beginning of my career.”

Poster Girl of Parallel Cinema

By this time, Smita Patil, along with Shabana Azmi, and Deepti Naval, had established herself firmly as one of the leading poster girls of the parallel cinema movement. Smita was churning out one winner after another as her movies not only redefined Indian cinema but also gave a voice to the oppressed in emerging India.

Smita Patil cut through the rose-tinted world of the commercial movies and showed the viewers the real face, a face with daily struggles, troubles, and little victories to keep the morale high to fight yet another day.

Smita Patil cut through the rose-tinted world of the commercial movies and showed the viewers the real face, a face with daily struggles, troubles, and little victories to keep the morale high to fight yet another day.

Marriage and Death

Smita Patil fell in love with actor Raj Babbar on the set of the 1982 film Bheegi Palkein. Raj Babbar was already married at that time with two children. Soon enough, Smita and Raj's love affair became fodder for the rumor mills, with tabloids labeling Smita as the "home breaker" or the "other woman.”

Babbar eventually married his new paramour leaving behind his kids. However, throughout the commotion, Smita kept a stoic silence and said once in an interview,

“A lot of things are not easy to understand… Besides, I am not worried about society’s hostile glance.”

In 1986, she gave birth to a son, Prateik Babbar, who is an actor today. Unfortunately, two weeks after giving birth, she died from post-pregnancy complications. More than a dozen of her films was released posthumously.

Mirch Masala (1987)

However, the closing highlight of her illustrious career was the movie Mirch Masala in which she played the stellar role of a rural woman named Sonbai who bravely stands up against the oppression of the local tax collector and finally brings justice to the long-suffering village poor.

Mirch Masala was widely appreciated at the International Film Festival of India in 1987. Her captivating performance enthralled national and international audiences and became a de facto standard for women-centric movies worldwide. In 2013, it was included in Forbes India’s "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema." The Forbes committee said in a statement about the movie,

“Patil was a great actress. Many of her great performances are laser-like in focus on a few things. … Mirch Masala covers the entire oeuvre of her acting chops. From the low key of the early frames to the full blast upper registers in the closing stages of the film. The transformation is awesome.”

The world film fraternity lost its most valuable jewel very early. There will never be another Smita Patil again.

Iconic Smita Patil Movies

  • Mirch Masala (1987)
  • Nishant (1975)
  • Mandi (1983)
  • Bazaar (1982)
  • Manthan (1980)
  • Bhumika (1977)
  • Namak Halaal (1982)
  • Arth (1982)
  • Shakti (1982)
  • Bheegi Palkein (1982)
The world film fraternity lost its most valuable jewel very early. There will never be another Smita Patil again.

The world film fraternity lost its most valuable jewel very early. There will never be another Smita Patil again.

Sources

© 2022 Ravi Rajan