Fame brings its own perils. Almost every major director of parallel cinema clamoured to work with this brilliant actor whose performance matched her promise. From the side-lines, mainstream cinema, shaken out of smug belief in its own invulnerability but putting on a show of indifference to art films, watched with growing interest the amazing appeal of an actress who did not conform to the industry’s conventional ideas of prettiness.

Meanwhile, parallel cinema did create niche audiences, not all of whom were from the usual film festival circuit. This hard-to-define segment of cinema-goers had waited long and patiently enough for something different: real stories about real people told with conviction, a fair amount of complexity and a degree of social relevance that probed some of Indian society’s perennial problems in a non-preachy way. Sure, some films did lapse into formulaic didacticism of the parallel kind, but that is inevitable in any new, loosely structured movement largely dependent on quasi-government funding and blocked off from regular theatrical release by the astronomical costs determined by commercial cinema.

Smita was in the thick of this dilemma, buffeted by demands and counter demands on all sides. Her tremendous screen presence was matched by her willingness to work with new directors, who had only their commitment and ideas to commend them. Smita was willing to lend the credibility of her name to total unknowns, risking failure at worst and ridicule for foolhardy trust at best. But loyalty to a project was paramount, once she had committed her time and talent. This was a fundamental article of faith till the end, and Smita played the centrepiece in two films, one that got a bad release and another that never got beyond a preview audience. All that mattered was that she believed in the film, its theme and the director. The films are Situm and Giddh

Smita was not the only actor in this tough situation. Her confreres from art cinema also struggled with this dilemma. Everyone had to make a decent living. You can’t live on acclaim and awards alone. The other, rather ingenious, argument put forth by almost all of them including Smita was that this was one way of enlarging the audience for art cinema once its actors became stars of mainstream films…

Why did Smita show such utter lack of discrimination when signing commercial films? It takes time to find your footing in a different milieu once the decision is made to venture into new territory. Smita’s father and some of her friends – Jhelum Paranjape and Lalita Tamhane – hint at the tremendous hurt Smita felt when an eminently successful director of viable art films promised her a role that she immediately fell in love with.

Later, she learnt from a press report that the role had gone to a rival. She was left to infer that the other actor was commercially more successful. Lalita claims that Smita just closeted herself for eight days, hurting over what she considered betrayal. Or is it rejection? She emerged from her self-imposed isolation and signed ‘two of the most stupid films in a day,’ says Lalita. She wanted to prove that she could be a mainstream star…

Art or mainstream, Smita was a magnet to film-makers hopelessly in love with her screen presence and the wonderful woman behind the image. Fortunately, there are only a couple of films of the Badle Ki Aag variety because commercial cinema found out soon enough that Smita with an air of gravitas was a better draw…

Lifting the lows to somewhere in the middle

Smita did not manage the two sides of her career with the wisdom and discernment that Shabana displayed. (The ratio of bad commercial films is lower in Shabana’s case.) Smita was mercurial, driven by an inexplicable frenzy to exhaust herself. It was greed, for experience, achievement, a desire to succeed in things alien to her temperament and sensibility. It was not primarily for money because Smita retained her egalitarian roots and ostentation of any kind was distasteful.

These were the years when she acted in the seminal Umbartha and Ardh Satya; and Kumar Shahani’s cerebral Tarang, Ketan Mehta’s dazzling Mirch Masala waited in the wings. It was a unique kind of artistic schizophrenia that afflicted Smita. The wonder is how she remained so sane in the middle of chaos and delivered performances that had a newer touch of maturity along with the old intensity. As Om Puri pointed out, Smita was developing a “technique of acting” suitable for the “different” kind of mainstream films like Amrit and Thikana. She got straight As in both. It was the methodical working of an intelligent mind that had sorted out the right key for each kind of storytelling.

There is a whole subculture to Smita Patil–Raj Babbar films where she sometimes plays the discarded first wife in Teesra Kinara (1986) or the loyal companion who shares his exile in an elaborate witness protection programme in Jawab (1985). Smita is often given “the look” – white sari with red border, mogra encircling her bun, red bindi and lipstick – to go with her soulful gaze.

Teesra Kinara merits more attention. Written by Kamleshwar and directed by Krishnakant, the film examines the temptations that corrupt Satyajit (Raj Babbar), a journalist– poet who had espoused the cause of workers and lived in a labour colony. His first love is Shamli (Anita Raj) whose father is a publisher. But circumstances force him to marry Savitri (Smita) when he visits his village to see his cancer-stricken mother.

Smita – a typical village girl with chunky silver jewellery, ulta pallu and unselfconscious friendliness – soon adjusts to being a thrifty housewife in a workers’ colony, raising her two kids practically alone because the husband is so busy. The marriage heads towards complete breakdown because he now grows closer to Shamli who takes over the publishing business and makes him a lionised literary celebrity. Smita’s face mirrors the pain of a wife who is kept away from the real person – the poet – in her husband, who indirectly blames her for losing his dreams in the mechanical drudgery of earning a livelihood in Bombay…

The other films with Raj Babbar are pathetic. She makes a cameo appearance in Dahleez (1986), a patriotic saga from BR Chopra Productions, set in the war zone with Pakistan, as a brave local who helps the Indian army. The main story is a love triangle of marital infidelity, played out by Raj Babbar, Jackie Shroff and Meenakshi Seshadri. What she suffers through in Mera Ghar Mere Bachche (1985), directed by Chander Vora, would test a Spartan’s endurance. She is a woman with an accursed husband, who has abandoned her and her kids. She toils on a construction site, even when pregnant with her third child…

A really troubling film that I ended up watching is Haadsa (1983). I was not aware of its existence until a clip of Smita the seductress popped up on YouTube. Now that Smita was on my mind all the time, I had to see this dubious masterpiece that was giving a distorted picture of what Smita was on the net. Smita is all heavy breathing, come-to-bed siren who fixes the garage mechanic Akbar Khan (producer–director of this rubbish) with a scary stare as she lets her fluffy yellow towel fall around her feet. Her head is encased in a matching yellow towel, wrapped turban style. The story is by Sagar Sarhadi.

Was that the reason Smita agreed to do this sexploitation hybrid that pretends to be a psychological thriller? That she got to play a psychotic character, frustrated to be part of her impotent rich husband’s huge collection of artefacts (more like kitsch if you see the film), might have persuaded Smita. She is a disturbed child, now a disturbed woman convinced that this unprepossessing mechanic is her childhood love.

She plays stalker, following him and his girlfriend, and finally takes a bullet to protect the man she obsesses about. What is sad is the effort and skill she pours into a totally unworthy project to make her character convincing, in a film where the self-obsessed hero even choreographs some medley of disco-cum-ballet to Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’!

Smita is not the only guilty actor to play a demeaning part here. Naseeruddin Shah’s role, as a cross between a villain and a Bhojpuri-spouting comedian, has no ostensible connection with the plot as he utters mostly incomprehensible gibberish. What fools these fine actors be! Puck needs to be paraphrased.

That is the truth that strikes you after marathon sessions of watching her little-known films, some for the first time. That she could be as sincere in Haadsa as in Bazaar is incredible, hard to understand. At one level, it is professionalism, an admirable quality. At another, it is a kind of foolish bravery, of not being just content to walk through a B-grade film that does not deserve her nor even demands that level of involvement.

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