Thirty-four years after Smita Patil’s death, traces of her short but remarkable life are still scattered around her father’s apartment in suburban Mumbai. Her sister, social worker Anita Patil, has also retained several articles belonging to the actor, who died at the age of 31 of post-delivery complications. These include Patil’s awards, saris, mirrorwork wall hangings, brass objects, film posters, sunglasses, combs and jewellery.

The bric-a-brac and lengths of fabric tell us something about Patil and her personal taste. She was born on October 17, 1955, into a middle-class family. Acclaim came early in her career, when she was merely 22, for Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977). For her portrayal of a troubled actor who has a series of tempestuous relationships, Patil was awarded a National Film Award – the first of three.

Patil was paid an acting fee of Rs 7,000 for the film – which she promptly splurged on a set of furniture from Gujarat. The low-rise sofas and seats adorn the living room of her father’s apartment in Bandra in Mumbai.

The furniture that Bhumika bought.

Patil was often kitted out in handloom fabrics and traditional jewellery in the movies – and she loved wearing them off-screen too, Anita Patil said. The actor would often buy decorative pieces when she travelled outside Mumbai for shoots. She had an enviable collection of saris, many of which Anita Patil has lovingly preserved. Carefully tucked away in linen covers, these saris look as good as new.

An Ikat-weave sari belonging to Smita Patil.

Some of the garments have their own backstories – and by remembering them, her family members keep the actor’s legacy alive. In the absence of museums to preserve the personal belongings of film talent, it is the family that performs the sometimes painful but equally necessary job of archiving.

A parrot-green and crimson Kanjeevaram sari – Smita Patil loved South Indian weaves – was worn by the actor to an event hosted by the national broadcaster Doordarshan, Anita Patil recalled. Another heavily brocaded rust brown-and-gold Banarasi affair was worn for a Filmfare awards event. Anita Patil can’t remember the film for which her sister won a Filmfare. But she does recall that Smita Patil was decked up because she was going to receive the award from the impeccably turned-out Rekha – who landed up in a pristine white satin-silk sari.

Rekha and Smita Patil had a lot of mutual goodwill, Anita Patil said. Rekha dubbed for Smita Patil after her death for the film Waaris, which was released in 1988.

There’s another story behind a deep blue Tanchoi silk sari. Patil had a small role in Sunil Dutt’s Dard Ka Rishta (1982), which was inspired by the death from cancer of the actor-filmmaker’s wife, Nargis. In the film, Khushboo plays a young leukaemia-stricken girl who goes to New York City for treatment. Patil plays the attending oncologist. She did the role for free.

At a fund-raiser for the Nargis Dutt Foundation in New Jersey, Patil wore the Tanchoi Gujarati style, with the pallu in the front. She walked up and down the aisles of the auditorium where the event was being held, holding out the pallu as though asking for alms.

Anita Patil models Smita Patil’s Tanchoi.

A wine-red bandhani woollen shawl was purchased in Ahmedabad, where Patil was shooting for Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai in 1980. Patil’s tie-and-dye shawl accompanied her to colder climes – it’s the garment draped around her during the shoot of G Aravindan’s Chidambaram in 1985.

The bandhani shawl with shell decorations, both purchased by Smita Patil.
Smita Patil during the shoot of Chidambaram (1985). Photo by Peter Chappell.

Smita Patil was fond of silver jewellery. She even wore her own possessions for a few films, such as this pendant strung from a necklace in Jabbar Patel’s Jait Re Jait (1977).

Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.

For other productions, Patil dipped into her mother’s collection. All the saris in Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha (1982) belonged to Vidya Patil. The Patil matriarch’s saris were also worn in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983).

Among the memorabilia is a Kashmiri papier-mache yellow box that Patil bought during the shoot of a film being made in Kashmir. Although the movie, co-starring Farooque Shaikh, was shelved, Patil returned with a couple of the distinctive boxes as well as a few embroidered kurtas.

These objects belong to a museum or an archive, Anita Patil told “I want them to be in the public domain. I don’t know where that will be. After all, she was a public figure.”

Smita Patil in Mirch Masala (1986). Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

Also read:

Smita Patil as a child: Mischievous, adventurous, emotional and an excellent mimic

Film flashback: ‘Bhumika’ is one of the best Indian biopics about the messy life of a movie star

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