Her baby, all of 14 days, was crying his lungs out. Her husband had slept late. Making sure he doesn’t wake up, she gently lifts her boy in her arms and tries to comfort him. The boy refuses to calm down, shaking his head far from her body. Must be her body temperature. She hadn’t been doing so well, running high fever for the past few days. Wrapping a wet cloth around herself, she nursed the child. Finally, her bundle of joy, who she had already started calling by the name Prateik, drifts off to sleep.
Less than 24 hours later, Smita Patil was going to die.
Shivajirao Girdhar Patil was a staunch nationalist and a hardcore socialist as well. Even as a teenager, Shivajirao was already the president of All India Student’s Federation (AISF), the student’s wing of India’s Communist Party. This was pre-independence, and everyone was filled with the zeal to see India freed from foreign oppression. A young Vidyotama Deshmukh, brought up in the ideals of feminism, was deeply inspired by his fiery speeches about the struggle for India’s freedom. Though at that point she was engaged to marry another man, Vidyatai – as she came to be known – came forward and expressed a desire to be a partner in his struggle as well as his life. Since they were both atheists and didn’t believe in rituals, their wedding was solemnised by prominent Marathi writer, activist and freedom fighter Pandurang Sadashiv Sane, a.k.a ‘Sane Guruji’.
Six years after the birth of their first child Anita, Shivajirao and Vidyatai welcomed their second daughter Smita on October 17, 1955. Shivajirao later said in an interview: “…Anita is quite fair. She has taken her mother’s colour. But Smita, to my delight, was like me.” The father was affectionately alluding to the fact that his darling daughter had taken after his dark complexion. But Smita Patil – a stunningly beautiful woman – was made aware of her skin tone throughout her stint in Bollywood. Apparently, she didn’t fit the conventional definition of Indian beauty. She said later, “People say I look ugly. I don’t look glamorous enough. What is this glamour they talk of? I don’t know. All I know is that this accusation is constantly thrown at me. Please ask them to change this line.” Truth be told, Smita had an extraordinary face, extremely photogenic. Even today, men and women look at her large eyes and angular face on Instagram and let out a deep sigh, while tapping the thousandth Like on the post.
Smita led what some would call a Bohemian lifestyle. She would roam around the streets of 70s Pune riding her Vespa, wearing her soiled blue jeans. She even loaned the pair of jeans to Ravi Deshpande, a dear friend who later became a documentary filmmaker and producer. Even when later – rather reluctantly – she accepted the job of a news reader at Doordarshan, she would quickly drape a saree over her jeans minutes before going live. When Smita Patil was on screen, reading the news or narrating a story – you felt as if she were talking to you, the person. Case in point is this show called Aarohi, where she is the compere on a series of performances by Lata Mangeshkar. She looks straight at you with those devastating eyes. Shyam Benegal confirmed this in an interview: “She was entirely focused. Now, this was very important. And she was a news reader but when she used to read the news, it seemed like she was talking to just you, as an individual. She was extremely focused.” And this is the quality that drew Benegal to offer her a role in his film.
Benegal’s sound recordist Hitendra Ghosh made contact with Smita’s family and conveyed the offer. Smita was a frequent presence at the FTII campus, and she was friends with many upcoming talents. She had already appeared in Arun Khopkar’s graduation film, Teevra Madhyam. But she harboured no notions of being a film star. She flat out refused Benegal’s offer. It was Vidyatai who came to Shyam Benegal’s rescue, and convinced Smita to audition for the role. And just like that, as reluctantly as becoming a news reader, or moving base from Pune to Mumbai, Smita became an actress on Shyam Benegal’s Charandas Chor(1975).
Aruna Raje, a filmmaker of some distinction who made films like Shaque(1976), Rihaee(1988) and last year’s Firebrand (2019), was a close confidante of Smita’s. They were practically inseparable. Raje reminisces, “In the early years, Smita was a carefree soul. She was bindaas and bohemian. She’d smoke chup chup ke. Hers was a magnetic personality. Once Vikas threw a surprise birthday party for me on a boat. Smita came along with Vinod Khanna wearing a one-shoulder dress. She looked fabulous. She loved going for long drives. The minute pack-up would be announced, she’d pull me in her car and we’d zip off. Once we reached Pune and stopped to stay at a middle-class hotel. There was no car parking available. We picked up a bike stationed there, dumped it somewhere else and parked our vehicle instead. That crazy we were!”
Smita may have acquired her die-hard feminist ideologies from her mother. Her choice of work reflected these leanings. While alternative cinema was going through its most fertile phase, 1980s represented the lowest ebb in mainstream Hindi films. When Smita shot for a rain song in Prakash Mehra’s Namak Halaal(1982), she broke down on her mother’s lap. Vidyatai later described how she held her and cried copiously that night. On the flip side, her liberal feminist self was given wings in films like Nishant, Bhumika, Manthan, Mirch Masala, Chakra etc. She played fiercely self-possessed women on screen. In real life though, destiny led her down a path which would seem to contradict this.
Smita Patil met Raj Babbar for the first time on the sets of Bheegi Palkein(1982). Raj explained in an interview to the Times of India, “I met her for the first time in Rourkela in Orissa, where we had gone to shoot Shishir Misra’s film Bheegi Palken. Our first meeting ended in a sort of clash – a sweet clash that laid the foundation of a relationship later. I was impressed by her from the word go”. Raj Babbar was already married to talented theatre actor-director Nadira Babbar, and they had a son, Arya. But Raj and Smita went ahead and got married anyway. The media had a field day. She was called a home-breaker. But the heart wants what it wants. When Smita’s best friend Aruna Raje was dealing with a painful divorce, Smita’s mother Vidyatai Patil wondered how could she side with a ‘home breaker’, when her own marriage was in shambles. Aruna said to her, “Yes, I am suffering but Smita is also suffering. We are two sides of the same coin. The wife and the other woman both suffer.” Nadira, though obviously devastated by the presence of this ‘other woman’ in her life, never seemed to harbour any ill-feelings towards Smita. In fact, when she reconciled with Raj Babbar on Smita’s passing, the media was once again up in arms, this time calling Nadira a ‘doormat’.
Despite the vulnerabilities in matters of the heart, Smita Patil was a phenomenal woman, and quite an enigma. Cultural historian and author Annette Kuhn she “epitomised the new Indian woman, projecting a strong self assured sexuality, independence, and intelligent concern with the world about her. Refusing the saccharine glamour of the mainstream film industry, she set a new style for stardom – and femininity – in the 80s, celebrating your sensuality and simplicity associated with Indian traditional lifestyles, while passionately critical of women’s oppression within traditional systems.”
Today, 34 years after her, the Smita Patil oeuvre is still unparalleled. More than 80 films in a span of just 12 years, in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Gujarati languages. In these 12 years she managed to do at least 20 remarkable films, and worked with directors the likes of Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Sagar Sarhadi, Kumar Shahani, Muzaffar Ali, Jabbar Patel, Mahesh Bhatt and Ketan Mehta. Even amongst the ‘commercial’ filmmakers, she was working with Dev Anand, Prakash Mehra, Ramesh Sippy, Raj Sippy, B. R. Chopra, Sunil Dutt, Rajkumar Kohli, C. V. Sridhar, Raj Khosla, J. Om Prakash, I. V. Sasi and B. Subhash. All of this in just over a decade, and she had barely turned 30. Also at 30, Smita Patil was the youngest Bollywood actor after Nargis to win the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour. Smita was 31 years old when she passed away. It boggles the mind to think what she would have done if she were alive today. She would have been 65 years old.
12th December, 1986
The industry was burdened with taxes in Maharashtra, and was considering other avenues. The West Bengal government extended an invitation to conduct a fundraiser event. They called it Hope ’86. Raj Babbar was one of the coordinators, hence the long hours. He leaves for work at 7.
After putting Prateik to sleep, Smita sits herself down and washes her long tresses of hair which had started falling now. Suddenly she gets the idea of noting down all the Marathi folk songs Vidyatai used to sing to her as a child. The mother is a bit surprised, but with Smita nothing is ever shocking. Or so she thought. She dictates the songs, and her little Smi writes them down. The doctor arrives for a check-up. She had been unwell ever since the delivery. The doctor puts her on a drip, but leaves assuring her that there’s no reason to get worried. Her hairdresser Maya pays a visit. They discuss Maya’s wedding videotape. She is paranoid but Maya puts her at ease. Her friend Poonam Dhillon calls up and they have a long chat. By the time Raj is back from work, Smita is back to her cheerful self and her drip has run out. She insists to tag along with Raj to the show. Raj tucks her in and goes to take a shower. By the time he is back, his wife was throwing up blood.
As she’s readied for the hospital, Smita refuses to leave little Prateik. She screams and protests, eventually simmering down. When they reach Jaslok Hospital, she has slipped into a coma. After a while she stopped bleeding, but her blood pressure continued to drop. Twenty doctors looked at her, and she was put on a respirator. Her brain stopped functioning. Around the midnight of 13th December, 1986, Smita Patil was declared dead. Her baby, her little Prateik, was 15 days old and her mother was past 55, left with the job of raising her grandson.
Vidyatai, who worked at a hospital, had sent Smita to Kindergarten earlier than usual, but she hated going to school. As Vidyatai described while reminiscing about her daughter in a Films Division documentary, “Jab ghar aati thhi, tab mujhe bolti thi, maa, tera hospital giraa de…aur ye mere school ki imaarat giraa de. Hum dono ikathhe rahenge. Main tujhe kabhi nahi chhodungi. Bahut chhoti si yaad hai lekin main aaj tak woh bhool nahi paati.” Vidyatai Patil’s eyes fill up.