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How Smita Patil has influenced my idea of cinema, identity, and the independent woman

·5 min read

In the column Let's Talk About Women, Sneha Bengani looks at films, the world of entertainment, and popular media through the feminist lens. Because it's important. Because it's needed. And because we're not doing it enough.

*

I watched my first Smita Patil film, Mirch Masala, at 22. It has been several years since but I still vividly remember how, after watching it, I could not think of anything or anyone else for a long time.

Like most upper-middle-class children born in the '90s, and raised in urban India, I've grown up on a staple diet of mushy, glossy movies of the Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions. There was a time when I could imitate the actors in their films word for word. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Dil To Pagal Hai, or Mohabbatein, I could spout their dialogues in sleep. And then one day, I left home to pursue a career in journalism.

My first rendezvous with Patil played out something like this: A film critic talked glowingly about Mirch Masala (1987) in her weekly column. She strongly recommended her readers watch the Ketan Mehta directorial. Intrigued, I sat with my laptop after a gruelling day at work. And I watched. To say that I was smitten by Patil's fiery, feisty Sonabai would be a gross understatement.

Up until that moment, I had watched several Naseeruddin Shah-Shabana Azmi-Farooq Sheikh films. I admired their performances but none of them had hit me as hard or as deep as Patil's Sonabai did. There was something about her that felt innately personal as if through the camera, she was speaking directly to me, and telling me that I was not alone, that there had been countless women before me who have had to fight their own fight all by themselves. Even though Sonabai's time and space were remarkably different from my own, we had something elemental in common €" we were both stuck in a sticky soup and we were both determined not to drown in it.

I was six months into my journalistic career then. Just when I was beginning to find my footing, my company asked me to relocate from its New Delhi headquarters to a remote bureau in Chandigarh for six months. I was not too keen. There were too many "what-ifs." But my news organisation made it abundantly clear that I did not have much of a choice. Meanwhile, on the personal front, I was on the verge of breaking up with my fiancée. We met through our parents. It was all fine until it was not.

I watched Mirch Masala at a time when I was suffering. Physically, I was overworked; mentally and emotionally, I was overwhelmed. Watching Sonabai stand tall €" and unflinchingly so €" in the face of acute duress and mounting social pressure gave me the strength that I was looking for in every conversation I had with my parents, friends, colleagues, and anyone else who would listen.

After watching Mirch Masala, I looked up Smita Patil online. It was distressing to see so little material available on her. Despite such a trailblazing career, it was as if with her death, she had vanished from public memory. I became poignantly aware that there was only a finite reserve of her films. Therefore, I tiptoed cautiously around it, taking my time, because I wanted this precious reservoir to last and sustain me for as long as possible.

I watched Bhumika (1977) next. The same thing happened again. Usha's toils and trials felt my own. There is such a meditative and philosophical strain to Patil's performance in the film, it made me ask questions of myself that I had not till then €" questions of identity, independence, and agency. In Patil's characters, I found a guide that I had always looked for in real life. It helped that they were no superheroes €" just women as brown as me, as Indian, and just as defiant, asking the same questions and burning just the same.

Patil's unwavering work ethic, abundant love for what she did, and headstrong feminist values paved my way, showed me how to create a space of my own even when there was no room.

On days that felt unending, I took heart from the knowledge that a woman like Patil existed not too long ago and that I could always return to her films when there was nowhere else to go.

Though Arth (1982) is a Shabana Azmi film, for me, it was Patil that stood out. There was no conversation around mental health in 1980s India. It was not every day that a leading heroine played a home-breaker with a fragile mental state. But Patil became Kavita so fully that despite her histrionics, you neither pity nor despise her. Even when Kavita is falling apart on screen, Patil holds on to her own. Such was the strength of her performance.

Sometimes, I get angry about why I did not grow up watching Patil's films instead, why despite her prolific career, she is primarily thought of as an "art-house actor," why there has been no active effort to preserve her legacy, and why more people of today do not know more about her. It has been 35 years since her untimely and (most unfortunate) death. There have been remarkable improvements in filmmaking and our sensibilities since then, and yet, there has been no one like her. Why, then, we do not celebrate her more often? Especially when there is such a dearth of role models among the current generation. Sometimes, I wonder about the change that could come if young boys and girls grew up on a staple diet of Patil's films.

That is the beauty of art €" it immortalises artistes, and creates incredible legacies and indelible imprints. I moved to Chandigarh as scheduled. It turned out to be an enriching experience. I broke up with my fiancée too. I continue to watch Smita Patil's films. I still have not seen them all; I am taking my time relishing each one. I talk to and interview all kinds of actors and authors for work, but the more I do it, the more the awareness grows that I will never get to sit across from her and ask her questions that have been taking root in me all these years, or just tell her €" thank you.

When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.

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