Smita Patil: The First Feminist In Indian Cinema
December 9, 2018 12:59 PM   Subscribe

In a time where the feminist movement was fairly nascent in India and the film-industry was struggling between exploring social themes and conventional ones, Smita Patil was like the missing puzzle piece who fit just right.

Smita Patil [Wikipedia]
Smita Patil (17 October 1955 – 13 December 1986) was an Indian actress of film, television and theatre. Regarded among the finest stage and film actresses of her times, Patil appeared in over 80 Hindi and Marathi films in a career that spanned just over a decade. ... She became one of the leading actresses of parallel cinema, a New Wave movement in India cinema, though she also appeared in several mainstream movies throughout her career.

Apart from acting, Patil was an active feminist and a member of the Women's Centre in Mumbai. She was deeply committed to the advancement of women's issues, and gave her endorsement to films which sought to explore the role of women in traditional Indian society, their sexuality, and the changes facing the middle-class woman in an urban milieu.
“Films, Flair, And Feminism: Celebrating Smita Patil” [Feminism India]
Smita Patil’s flair was for art films, and she would immerse herself and take up roles that would portray the real-life struggles of millions of women in India, and acted as an icon of empowerment for many. She has even been known to do a few films for free or for very little money, like Bhavani Bhavai (1980) which explored caste-discrimination in Gujarat, simply because she passionately believed in the message it sought to spread. Her performances in films like Bhumika (1977), Chakra (1981), Mandi (1983), Arth (1982), and Umbartha (1982) to name a few, all portray strong female leads, and unusual female characters who decide to take up their lives in their own hands.
“A Blazing Talent Remembered” [The Hindu]
When Smita Patil breathed her last on the midnight of December 13, 1986, Indian cinema lost a unique talent. Starting out in the early Seventies (1974) with Shyam Benegal's Charandas Chor — a first for both — she soon developed into an actress of great intuitive talent and artistic worth. Her dusky, smouldering, earthy looks, coupled with her histrionic voltage, made her one of the stars of the New Cinema that was blitzing the screen and consciousness of a newer and more perceptive audience. Along with Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, she formed the most potent quartet representing the parallel cinema. Manthan, Bhoomika, Chakra, Albert Pinto, Aakrosh.... she was there, everywhere, with those fiery looks, sensuous body and blazing talent, sufficiently impressing renowned American critic Elliott Stein: "At 25 Smita is clearly the queen of Indian parallel cinema, as much an icon for film-makers of the milieu as was Anna Karina for young directors in France at the outset of their new wave. Patil is not a classic beauty but the lady glows. She never makes a false move on screen."
“Feisty Yet Vulnerable, Smita Patil Played Everywoman On Screen” [The Quint]
When you think of Smita Patil’s films, one of the first images is perhaps of her staring into the camera silently in the last scene of Mirch Masala (1987) as the village women in the spice factory unite in the assault of the lecherous subedar played by Naseeruddin Shah. Patil played Sonbai in this beautiful Ketan Mehta film, a village belle who refuses to submit to the subedar’s advances (strengthened by a village of largely sexist men). Patil, by investing Sonbai’s vulnerability with indomitable strength and a fiery independence, elevates the character to be an Everywoman.
“Remembering The Force That Was Smita Patil, The First Feminist In Indian Cinema” [Scoop Whoop]
Smita didn't look like every other female Bollywood actor of the era, and she did not have have as many blockbusters to her name. But she did try her hands at mainstream cinema, so she could bring more attention to the independent films, and found success in films like Namak Halal…. But, as a feisty 20-something woman, she had her own struggles. In an old interview, she said, "I can't get out of our purana sanskar, nor can I embrace contemporary morality fully." That statement still resonates with women across the country.
“Smita Patil: The Woman Behind the Image” [Rediff Movies]
Deepak Sawant often worried that Smita took on unnecessary tension upon herself. She would brood over incidents of abused women, stories she heard as part of her work with women's groups. Smita would give financial help to individual cases, but she fretted that she could not do more. "You can only do as much as you can. Can't help or change the whole world," was the advice a pragmatic Deepak offered to the troubled star.

Feminism in India was concerned with getting women an equal wage, and protection from domestic violence and police brutality in concrete, countable, ways. This was something close to Smita's heart because her mother and sister Anita -- along with other role model figures -- were active in this field.
“Bollywood will never find another Smita Patil: She died too soon, but her amazing oeuvre leaves us a treasure trove of cinematic brilliance” [Daily O]
There are two types of rebels. One variety makes a huge ruckus about the manner in which they change the order of things, while the other kind is the silent ones whose actions end up making the loudest of sounds. Smita Patil belonged to the latter and in her roles millions of women found an icon mirroring their own trials, joys and struggles and a search for an identity.
- Smita Patil’s infamous “rain dance” scene [YT 6m36s] for the song “Aaj Rapat Jaaye” in Namak Halal (1982)
- Smita Patil – The Face Of Indian Parallel Cinema [YT 3m33s]
- Smita: A Biography [YT 8m21s] - English subtitles available

Smita Patil Filmography [IMDB]

Smita Patil photos and ephemera [Tumblr]
posted by nightrecordings (3 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Thursday, December 13, 2018 will mark exactly thirty-two years since Smita Patil's death at the far too early age of 31. She passed away due to complications during childbirth.
posted by nightrecordings at 12:59 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Plus she was dark skinned, that was a biggie in that time. You'll find it mentioned in the writings as "dusky"...
posted by infini at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2018 [4 favorites]

Excellent post, thanks. I've only seen a couple Smita Patil movies myself, Bhumika: The Role being a favorite (and available with subs online), so I'm looking forward to reading more about her and digging up some other films.

As an aside on feminist parallel cinema, 2018 saw the death of Kalpana Lajmi, a director who also often emphasized the roles and issues women faced in India. She sadly didn't get as many opportunities as her work showed she deserved but the quality of what she did accomplish is worth remembering.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:57 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

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