Ma, I need some money to fuel my car, you said as you huffed and puffed up three flights of stairs. Why are you back, didn’t you just leave for the shoot, Ma wanted to know. Ma, one of the light boys on our set, he lives in a slum, he needed money to repair his damaged roof. I gave him all the money I had. And now my car has stalled without petrol. Ma quietly gave you some money. That’s what you were like: simple, empathetic and generous to a fault.

Ma had another story about your time in Pune around 1971-72 when you were at Fergusson College. A young man from a royal family was madly pursuing you. You were smitten too, not by him but his haveli. What mattered to you the most was having this mansion where you could raise many children. That’s what you were like: funny, dreamy and outlandish.

Ma and you came to visit me in the United States after my son Adeetya’s birth in 1977. I had to return to work in three weeks. It had been decided that Ma and you would take Adi back to India when he was five weeks old.

You were mad at me. How could you send away your child, you yelled. Work mattered more to me than children, but you found it incomprehensible that a mother would send her child so far away. you promised to look after Adi like he was your own, and that’s just what you did.

You took Adi along to your shoots, and that is how he earned his first ‘acting’ credits in the films Sarvasakshi and Tarang. It gave you great joy to mother him. Between you, Ma and our youngest sister Manya, Adi was raised like a prince. That’s what you were like: deeply maternal and possessive.

Smita Patil with her nephews Adeetya and Varoon. Courtesy Anita Patil-Deshmukh.

You were never interested in acting even though you were part of a theatre group in Pune. You were happily studying at Elphinstone College in Mumbai and working as a newsreader at Doordarshan when you received an acting offer from Shyam Benegal.

As a family, we were far removed from the film world. Ma had never allowed us to watch movies during our formative years except Marathi films made by Prabhat Studios.

Many years later, after you were cast in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti, a journalist asked you if you were anxious about working with the thespian Dilip Kumar. You declared that since your mother had all but banned Hindi films, you hadn’t watched a single film of Dilip Kumar. The storm you created! That’s what you were like: naive, undiplomatic, innocent to a fault.

When you won the National Film Award for Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika in 1977, you were in a village in Maharashtra shooting for Ramdas Phutane’s Sarvasakshi. Someone from Delhi called home and told Ma about your award. Ma had no clue about the National Film Awards. She only gathered that you had received “some award”.

When you returned from the shoot, you were elated, and explained to Ma the importance of a National Film Award. When she told you that you would be getting a cash price of Rs 10,000 rupees, you told Ma that you had already been paid for your work in Bhumika. You asked Ma to donate to money to 10 institutions working for the poor. Ma did exactly that.

I have often thought about this. Why would anyone do this, then or now? You were 22 years old at the time. You had no job. Your parents had barely graduated to the middle class. You didn’t know what the future would bring. Ten thousand rupees was a princely sum in those days.

But you did not bat an eyelid before giving that money away. You were deeply anchored in the values inculcated in us by our parents, and you never lost them. You refused to be a glamour-crazy celebrity. Your house had only Japanese-style mats to sit on, and a bamboo partition divided the rooms. That’s what you were like, bindaas, carefree.

Smita Patil with her father, Shivajirao Patil. Courtesy Anita Patil-Deshmukh.

Your friend Dilshaad and you were both mad young women. I was back in India for my second son Varoon’s delivery. You decided that you were going to drive the military Jonga jeep that you had borrowed from a friend. The two of you were going to drive from Delhi through the Chambal Valley to Bombay.

By this time, you were a familiar face. You had won the National Film Award for Bhumika, and producers were knocking on your door. I was scared to death by your plan. But you were hell-bent on the trip and extracted a promise from me that I would not tell our mother.

We decided that you would call me each night. Since the Chambal Valley had a reputation for being risky for women, Dilshad and you wore turbans and passed yourselves off as men. You talked about revisiting this experience with your children in the future. A future that never arrived. That’s what you were like: adventurous and uncaged.

You were never Smita Patil on the screen, but whosoever you portrayed. Take Giddh, for instance: people could not recognise you among the other women. You always reminded me of Daniel Day Lewis. Just like him, you were your character.

In 1984, you were invited by the Art Institute of Chicago, American academic Richard Penna, and the Indian Organization for a retrospective. You came to stay with me. Your first instructions to me was, please do not tell anyone that I have arrived. I do not want to meet any community leaders or journalists, give any interviews or appear on any shows. I want to be home and play with your children.

When the retrospective opened to a packed hall, Richard Penna said you would take questions from the audience at the end of the film. After the screening started, the Indian Organization members, including architect Parmveer Gujral and Manoj Sanghvi of Standard Oil, invited you for dinner. Anyone else would have accepted happily. What did you do?

You gracefully declined, saying that you needed to stay back for the audience interaction. That’s what you were like: uncalculating.

Smita Patil photographed by Gautam Rajadhyaksha.

You were in London during the seventh month of your pregnancy. You insisted on the phone that you wanted to come to Chicago to meet me. You told me, I want you to see me in my pregnant state.

As a well-trained neonatologist, I was aware that changes in flight pressure could induce labour and that you would have to be taken immediately to a hospital. I wasn’t willing to take that chance with you. You pleaded with me that if you could come from Mumbai to London, why not London to Chicago?

I had the hardest time explaining to you that the aerial journey from Mumbai to London was mostly on land, where an emergency landing was possible in case you went into premature labour, while the flight from London to Chicago was almost entirely over water. Your disappointment was huge, and so was mine.

How I wished I had allowed you to take that chance. You had told me that you would visit me in April, when Chicago got warmer, along with your baby, and that I should buy a house with a swing in the backyard where you play with your baby and my boys. The baby came with Ma, but you never did.

I believe that throughout your adult life, you carried two women within you. One was immersed in Indian tradition, while the other was free-spirited, adventurous, and an explorer of the umbartha, or the threshold, of modern thinking. I believe that you could not reconcile these worlds. That struggle perhaps never left you in peace, hence you portrayed that fight so effectively on the screen.

These portrayals have inspired generations, and continue to do so. Thirty-five years after your death, people young and old alike remember you with great affection and respect.

I was pleasantly shocked to see many young people at a retrospective of your films in Bangalore in 2016. These were people who were born after you left this world. They told me that the women you portrayed on the screen remained a great source of inspiration and strength for them. That said it all.

I think of you every day, and I feel your presence in myriad ways. The song from Jait Re Jait describes you aptly: “Aase ekhad pakharu welhal, tyala samora yetay aabhal.” That’s what you were: a solitary bird so unique that the sky itself bowed down and welcomed you.

Anita Patil-Deshmukh and Smita Patil. Courtesy Anita Patil-Deshmukh.

Anita Patil-Deshmukh is the director of the research collective PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research) in Mumbai.

Also read:

From a personal archive of Smita Patil, a reminder of her eye for beauty

Photos: Smita Patil loved the camera and it loved her right back