Whether it was the middle-child syndrome or her innate craving for physical closeness, Smita was the most clingy of the three sisters. She knew Maa would be away when she saw her in uniform and clung to her knees, to delay the inevitable departure. Before her third daughter Manya was born, Vidyatai wanted to enrol Smita in a kindergarten class run by a woman she knew. A sobbing Smita clutched her mother and stuttered, ‘May both your clinic and my school fall down!’

Right from childhood, Smita was the emotional one while the other two children were more practical. Vidyatai’s adjective to describe the daughter with whom she had the most conflicted relationship is ‘prem mayee’, a being suffused with love.

The young Smita was easily moved to tears. At seven, she once found a dead sparrow. She lovingly made a bed of cotton wool, mourned over it and buried the sparrow with grave solemnity. She would pick up all the stray dogs, clean and feed them biscuits dipped in tea, under the water tower near the house. Smita needed space, and more and more people to nurture. Anita remembers Smi (that is what the sisters always called her) wanting to live in a wada (a sprawling many-roomed traditional house where extended families live) and have eight to ten children! This craving for motherhood was intense, like a force of nature that she lived by at an unconscious level.

It was an automatic choice that Anita and Smita were enrolled in a Marathi-medium school – Bhave Girls School, now Renuka Devi School, named after a donor. Anita remembers the eagerness and enthusiasm with which Smi took part in their school’s extracurricular activities. ‘She desperately wanted to act in the school play but our principal Mrs Kamala Rajhans did not select her. Smi complained, “Bai mala nahi ghetla natakala.” She was so unhappy!

Smita was not all solemnity though. Anita, her first cousin Sanjeevani and Jhelum Paranjape (the noted Odissi dancer was a childhood friend) all speak of the wonderful mimic Smita was. The actor was waiting in the wings, feathers furled, unaware of her own potential.

From a sickly child, she turned more athletic and revelled in mischief. Anita, six years older, remembering her own obedient nature, marvels at how adventurous Smi was even as a young girl. ‘She was boisterous, on the ground, revelling in getting dirty. She was a spirited girl [who grew into a spirited woman] from the time she was born. She was basically adventurous in spirit.’

School life in Pune was packed with activities for the two older girls. The conscientious, politically aware parents encouraged Anita and Smita to join the Rashtra Seva Dal (RSD), a cultural organization that remained outside politics but was interested in moulding young minds to the idea of service. Shivajirao credits S.M. Joshi as one of the founders of RSD under the guidance and inspiration of Sane Guruji. In the 1940s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was going about assiduously developing shakhas, and their main slogan was to catch them young to turn youngsters into ideologically driven swayamsevaks. Starting with physical education, the RSS regimen followed it up with sermons on Hindutva. Joshi was aware that something had to be done to counter this dangerous ideology that brainwashed children into forming a narrow, exclusivist Hindutva idea of society. There was the Congress Seva Dal of course but they did not train young people ideologically. Joshi decided to counter the RSS shakhas with Rashtra Seva Dal, following the same principle, catch them young. ‘Sarva dharma samanata, Gandhiji’s cardinal philosophy, was the main principle of Rashtra Seva Dal.

Anita and Smita were enthusiastic members who went on Bharat Darshan and Maharashtra Darshan tours, performing in remote villages to entertain, educate and serve the marginalized. It was social and cultural grounding, fortified with mother’s milk – Vidyatai too was a Seva Dal Sainik. So the idea of egalitarianism and social justice, of the equality of all faiths and religions was inbred. Consciously and subconsciously, her years with RSD were a hugely formative factor in shaping Smita’s character and personality. It is a given that performing on stage from childhood freed the future actor from stage fright and inculcated the ability to take direction.

The nurture of socially committed parents combined with the ethical grounding of her RSD years gave Smita her trademark traits of simplicity, openness and generosity when she entered films. She was as friendly with the unit hands as with fellow actors.

Smita Patil. Courtesy Jhelum Paranjape.

Smita escaped the intense attention that is normally reserved for the first-born and was freer to do what she wanted. Anita, the most perceptive of sisters, recognized the complexity under her sister’s seeming conformity. She says with disarming honesty: ‘It was not easy being our mother’s daughters. Maa’s head ruled her, Smi was ruled by her heart.’ A tougher taskmaster, convinced of the rightness of what she is doing, is difficult to find. All the girls, Smita more acutely so, needed their mother’s approval that was so hard to win.

An incident, told quite often, is testimony to Vidyatai’s tough love approach. Smita was around eleven, and returning home late at night from Bhave School after a school function. She had to cross Shanker Seth Road which was very lonely at this time of night. Her mother waited one mile away, behind the bus stop. Vidyatai allowed Smita to pass her and then called out to her daughter. Smita threw her cycle down, ran to her mother and the two hugged each other tightly. Vidyatai’s intention was to teach a young girl a crucial lesson in self confidence.

To sum up in her words, ‘Do dene ka, do lene ka’. In her rule book, it meant: Be prepared to take all decisions and face them, we are with you though we will not interfere in your life. Portentous words that brought in their wake so much heartache in their lives – Smita desperate for her mother’s approval and support, and Vidyatai holding back, unable to forgive Smita for her marriage to Raj Babbar.

But all that came later. Along with the hard lessons came a lot of fun and games. And the joy of learning the arts. Smita’s training in music is not much known. She had lessons from Mogubai Kurdikar for a couple of months. Jal K. Balporia of the Gwalior gharana came home to teach her. All the dance that Smita learnt was courtesy her RSD training.

The really fun side of Smita’s childhood is revealed by Sanjeevani’s fond recollections. Though Smita was good at studies, she was more interested in ‘masti and gaali galot with the boys’. ‘Ye halkat!’ she would call out, riding her cycle.

As a child, the icon of deglamourized art cinema was fastidious about her clothes. Students of Marathi-medium schools did not have to follow the rigorous discipline demanded by English-medium schools when it came to uniforms. Other kids wore un-ironed clothes but not Smita. She pressed every pleat of her uniform to perfection. She was rather vain about her toned legs. Sanjeevani remembers being awed by the fact that Smita owned the first pair of hotpants in their group. She had two pairs – one green and one pink – in which she strutted around, her athletic, muscled legs on display. As for dancing skills, she braved her mother’s wrath one Ganapati festival to dance to a Bollywood song.

Did she have a middle-child syndrome? Something even her immediate family was not aware of, but a soul sister she related to later on in life perhaps knew of? Allied to this underlying insecurity is Smita’s dark complexion. Her mother, Anita and Manya are light-skinned and Shivajirao is dark. Did she nurse an inferiority complex over it? Smita was habitually called Kali, Kaluram, Ghatan – by her mother, her many friends – and she did not seem to mind it, but it could have led to a complex, Anita concedes.

It is poetic justice of sorts that this very dusky look gave Smita her unique status in art cinema. It did become a problem in commercial films, though. Anita recalls a telling incident. ‘At the Delhi Film Festival in the early 1980s, when I was in India, we (Smita, Poonam Dhillon and I) had forgotten our delegate badges. They allowed Poonam in but not Smi because she did not look like a film star.’ The film being screened was Chakra. Our fair and lovely hang-up did not even spare an iconic National Award–winning actor!

Excerpted with permission from Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence, Maithili Rao, HarperCollins India.