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Smita Patil anniversary special: 4 female-orientated unconventional films

On the actress's 62nd birth anniversary, we look at four of her films that broke conventions and paved the way for future woman-orientated films.

Anita Paikat

Smita Patil emerged as the queen of parallel cinema from the 1970s until her untimely death in 1986. Patil was an ace at playing simple, real characters and moved audiences with her performances in films like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Chakra (1981), Arth (1982), Mandi (1983) and Mirch Masala (1987).

Though she did appear in a few commercial films also, like Shakti (1982), Namak Halaal (1982), Aap Ke Sath (1986) and Waaris (1988), Patil was always wary of getting into that zone. India Today magazine quoted her as saying, “I hope I don't get pushed into doing commercial films because, truly, that will be the end of Smita Patil!”

Her contribution to cinema was recognized by Forbes India magazine and her name was added to the list of ‘25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema’ charted to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema in 2013.

On her 62nd birth anniversary, we look at four of Smita Patil's films that broke conventions and paved the way for future woman-orientated films.

Bhumika (1977)

Bhumika, directed by Shyam Benegal, was inspired by Marathi film and theatre actress Hansa Wadkar's autobiography Sangtye Aika. Wadkar was a well-known artiste from the 1930s through the 1950s who led a flamboyant and unconventional life. Smita Patil played Usha, a character modelled on Wadkar, in the film adaptation of the book and won the National award for Best Actress.

Benegal's focus in the film was the loneliness that the protagonist feels and her attempts at overcoming it. She yearns to lead a simple, domestic life but is forced to work as an actress to keep the stove burning at home. She marries Keshav Dalvi, a man almost twice her age and the one who helps her get into the film industry. The match, obviously, is not one made in heaven and the marriage soon breaks up with Dalvi's conniving and suspicious nature.

Usha leaves his home and has a brief liaison with film director Sunil Verma (Naseeruddin Shah), then lives in with Vinayak Kale (Amrish Puri) in his village, but all the while refuses to elope with Rajan (Anant Nag), the only man who truly loves her. Her reason for not doing so is that her husband's suspicion of their illicit affair will only be proved if she comes to him. This equation does not quite fit the bill but succeeds in highlighting the integrity of the woman.

India Today magazine also quoted Patil as saying, “Hansa Wadkar is the most difficult film I have done so far, and therefore the most satisfying. It was frightening at first — it is a plum role which any actress would give her right hand to get — and I didn't feel confident enough to tackle it.”

Taking up the task of playing Usha must have indeed been a challenge. The unconventional decisions by Usha in the film would create headlines even today. Doing them back in the 1930s and 1940s, as Wadkar did, would have taken oodles of courage.

Mandi (1983)

Shyam Benegal’s Mandi begins, interestingly, with a shot of the rotting skeleton of an animal. It is, perhaps, a glimpse into the film’s theme of a society at discord, moving slowly to a similar end. Like most of the other actresses in the film, including Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan and Ila Arun who was making her debut, Smita Patil too rendered an applause-worthy performance.

Mandi, which means market, offers a peek into the lives of women at a brothel run by Rukminibai (Azmi). While the rest of the women are busy in the flesh trade, Rukminibai has kept a gem (Zeenat, played by Patil) beyond the reach of any man. One day a benefactor, Mr Aggarwal (Saeed Jaffrey), invites Rukminibai’s troupe to perform at the engagement of his son, Sushil.

While Zeenat sings the melodious ‘Zamaane Badalte Hain’, Sushil falls for her and how. Soon enough, Zeenat agrees to his advances, though more for her penchant to explore not only the world outside her bedroom but also in excitement of a sexual alliance that she has so far been deprived of by Rukminibai. The couple plans to elope, but just before that Rukmini learns that Sushil is, in fact, her half-brother, and her father is Mr Aggarwal himself.

Though the characters don’t spell out the message of the film in long monologues, the hypocrisy of a decadent society is reflected throughout. Be it the farcical social worker Shanti Devi, the businessman and upcoming politician Mr Gupta (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), or the members of the patriarchal society who visit the brothel at dark but loathe it by day.

Zeenat’s character itself is a bitter comment on the morals so dear to this society. She is born from an illegitimate relationship between the respected Mr Aggarwal and one of Rukminibai’s women. The father refuses to accept her and leaves her in Rukmini’s care, doling out regular donations to the brothel in return. It is only fitting that his legitimate son unknowningly falls for Zeenat, putting the father into a dilemma he has forever tried to evade.

Aakhir Kyon? (1985)

As the title indicates, J Om Prakash’s film is a question to men, women and society at large. Nisha Sharma (Smita Patil), an orphan, marries a rich but spoilt Kabir Suri (Rakesh Roshan). Life is happy until Nisha’s cousin Indu (Tina Munim) comes to stay with the couple to help her out during her pregnancy. On returning from hospital with a baby in her hands, Nisha learns that Indu and Kabir have been having a gala time in her absence.

On confronting her husband, Nisha is told that her identity is to remain his wife and remain oblivious to his affairs. Nisha refuses, and decides to walk out of the marriage, but Kabir forbids her from taking the child along. Thus begins Nisha’s journey of self-discovery. Soon, with the help of a colleague Alok (Rajesh Khanna), she finds success, first as a TV announcer and later as a writer.

Aakhir Kyon? challenged the notion that a woman is a mere shadow of her husband. If she wishes, she can be much more than a domestic showpiece. Unfortunately, the film loses its conviction just when it is about to reach home. Nisha finds her identity, yes, but only after rejecting her name. At Alok’s behest, she changes her name to Ashashri, using it as a pseudonym in all her books. She wanted to prove to her estranged husband that she exists beyond the attachment of his surname to her name, but in the process adopts a wholly different identity.

The film is about the courage and determination that lies in even the meekest of women. However, it seems the woman needs a man, if not the husband, then a friend, to bring out these qualities. Alok is Nisha's lifesaver, quite literally, as he stops her from consuming sleeping pills. He is the one who identifies her art and asks her to take up writing, and he is also the one who gives her a new name, Ashashri. Sadly, Nisha’s newfound identity is not as much earned as given.

Mirch Masala (1987)

Red chilly is one of the ingredients most widely used by women in Indian kitchens. In Mirch Masala, Ketan Mehta makes his female protagonist use this very domestic product as a weapon to protect herself not only from a lecherous man but also from a mistrustful society.

It’s colonial India, and an arrogant subedar or tax collector (Naseeruddin Shah) camps on the outskirts of the village. The lecherous and cruel subedar is always on the lookout for women and soon spots Sonbai (Smita Patil). He tries to force himself upon her, but the intelligent Sonbai evades each of his moves and even lands a slap across his face.

Her refusal to bow down to his demand and the mark on his cheek become a direct hit at his inflated ego. He sends out soldiers to bring her to him, while she takes refuge at the local spice factory. The matter escalates, and the men of the village, led by the mukhia (Suresh Oberoi) deem it fit that Sonbai must turn herself in to the subedar. Sonbai refuses to acquiesce and is supported by the women of the village, particularly by the mukhia’s wife (Deepti Naval).

Sonbai’s unwavering conviction becomes a guiding force for the other women who soon see themselves in her shoes. They, like Sonbai, refuse to give in to the demands of the brute, taking it upon themselves to fight him off rather than wait for the men of the village.

The scene of Naval walking around in the village banging a plate with a ladle is one of the best in the film. The very basic apparatus of a ladle and plate associated with the role of women in society, too, can challenge power, and patriarchy.