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Smita and a bittersweet memory

I never met her, I’d have liked to but she didn’t wait around for me to grow up and become a journo. Over the years I’ve often been told, “You’d have liked her, she’d have liked you.” I’ll never know…

bollywood Updated: Dec 18, 2011 15:19 IST
Roshmila Bhattacharya

I never met her, I’d have liked to but she didn’t wait around for me to grow up and become a journo. Over the years I’ve often been told, “You’d have liked her, she’d have liked you.” I’ll never know…



Twenty-five years ago, I remember listening to the news on Doordarshan about Smita Patil being hospitalised in a ‘critical’ condition. There was a sense of foreboding but I refused to believe that she would never return home. In my world, mothers didn’t go away leaving behind their two-week-old babies but on December 13, 1986, Smita, at the age of 31, was gone forever...



I grew up on her movies…Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Bazaar, Subah, Arth, Shakti, Namak Halaal... Her smouldering, kohl-lined eyes have haunted me with the premonition that I too wouldn’t live beyond the 30s. Once I found my man and married him, early death lost its allure. The night before my daughter was born, I told my husband all that I wanted her to know, just in case, like Prateik, my child never got to know me.



It was a complicated C-section, my blood pressure fell alarmingly, and for a while the doctors were afraid they’d lose me. But six days later, I returned home with Ranjika in my arms. The close brush with death brought me closer to Smita.



Over the years, through stories I’d heard from people who knew her, I’ve been trying to piece together a picture of Smita whom I never got to know. Many of her friends remember her reading the news on Bombay Doordarshan, a job she landed by accident.



Curious to see what a TV studio looked like, she’d accompanied a friend of her sister Anita, Jyotsna Kirpekar, to the center on a day when they were auditioning newsreaders. Jyotsna prodded Smita to try her luck. No one was more surprised than her when she was offered the job.



She debuted as an announcer on the Marathi programme, Usyache Karyakram, before graduating to reading the local news. Since she was underage, she couldn’t sign a legal contract and had to be paid on a day-to-day basis.



She nurtured no starry dreams even though as cabinet minister Shivajirao Patil’s daughter, she had been an active member of the children's wing of Rashtriya Seva Dal, touring villages, entertaining and educating people through dance and drama. The second surprise came when sound recordist Hitendra Ghosh, a family friend, came home with a film offer from Shyam Benegal.



Even though she didn’t look like a conventional Hindi film heroine, Shayam babu, who pioneered the new-wave cinema of the ’70s, believed that she was ‘star’ material. He was impressed by her dusky looks, husky voice and most of all, her confidence in front of the camera. With Hitendra pushing his cause, he convinced the reluctant Patils to let her act in his children’s film, Charandas Chor, based on a Habib Tanvir play.



Smita played the haughty princess in the 1975 fantasy adventure, refusing to marry. The same year, she graduated to her first ‘adult’ role of Rukmini in Shyam babu’s Nishant. This film was based on a Vijay Tendulkar play and revolved around the abduction of a schoolteacher’s wife (Shabana Azmi) by the zamindars that triggers off an uprising in the village. It ended with Smita’s reel-life death but was the beginning of a much-applauded film career that ironically ended with her real-life death 11 years later.



Nishant almost cost Smita a college degree. Her principal at St Xavier’s College was furious that she wanted to skip some classes for a shoot before her BA exams. He told her that if she went ahead with the film, she would have to take the exams in October.



Shyam babu tried to intercede on her behalf but the principal was unrelenting. If Smita wanted to play around with her studies, she'd have to pay the price. She kept her commitment to Nishant, and after seeing it, her principal agreed it had been a film worth skipping classes for. Smita went on to do Shyam babu’s Manthan, Bhumika (that won her a National Award), Kondura and Mandi. And, along with Shabana Azmi, was the shining star of parallel cinema till she made the transition to mainstream.



Years later, I was taking a trip down memory lane with filmmaker Goutam Ghose, who surprised me by admitting that his first choice for Paar had been Smita: “But when I met her in Chennai, she requested me to start the film after a year so she could learn swimming.” He couldn’t comply because the film had to roll immediately and cast Shabana instead. Smita was in tears. “I reassured her saying we’d make another film together soon,” flashbacked a teary-eyed Goutamda. “I couldn’t keep my promise. She passed away two years later.”



A quarter of a century has passed but the world hasn’t forgotten Smita Patil. As for me, every time I look at my daughter, I think of Smita and wonder, “Is this how she would have reacted with Prateik?”