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Smita Patil's 10 most memorable roles – Birth anniversary special

In a short span of just over a decade, Smita Patil, who was born this day in 1955, captured the hearts and minds of film watchers as well as makers with her powerful performances and earthy sensuality.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

At a time when Rekha, Hema Malini, Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman epitomized glamour in Hindi cinema, Smita Patil captured the hearts and minds of cine-goers and filmmakers with her powerful performances and earthy sensuality. With a look that could blend in throughout most of mainland India, Smita Patil brought an intensity to her roles that breathed life into every character that she played in her short career.

The advent of what was called the New Wave or parallel cinema in the 1970s was a response to the formulaic gloss and glamour of mainstream cinema that had become too far removed from the challenges, frustrations and realities of life. A host of filmmakers, eager to engage with the socio-political climate in the country, facilitated the emergence of artistes who were removed from the so-called mainstream cinema. Patil, along with Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Girish Karnad, Mohan Agashe and Amrish Puri, was a part of this brave new world.

Smita Patil began her career as a newsreader on Doordarshan, the only television channel in those days, and her first film role came with Arun Khopkar’s diploma film at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Teevra Madhyam (1974). This was followed by Shyam Benegal’s Hindi feature film Charandas Chor and Jabbar Patel’s Marathi feature film Samna, both of which were released in 1975. She then played the second lead in Benegal’s Nishant (1975), starring with Karnad, Azmi, Amrish Puri and Anant Nag in the film.

In her book on the actress, veteran film critic Maithili Rao called Smita Patil 'the pole star of parallel cinema'. Though she did make a foray into commercial cinema, and consciously so, Patil's appetite for experimentation, together with a desire to portray women in powerful roles, unlike what was the norm in commercial cinema at the time, allowed her to carve a niche for herself in a remarkably short span of time. An activist and a supporter of women’s rights, she was one of the few who walked the walk.

Paying tribute to this powerhouse of talent on her 65th birth anniversary, we take a look at some of Smita Patil's iconic roles in some landmark films of the 1970s and 1980s.

Manthan (1976)

Girish Karnad and Smita Patil

Set against the backdrop of the White Revolution, the milk cooperative movement of Dr Verghese Kurien, Manthan was originally to star Azmi. However, she was busy with other projects and so Patil got the role.

Featuring Karnad as a fictional version of Dr Kurien, the film starred Shah, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Agashe. Manthan recounts the struggle of the cooperative in its early days when members had to overcome corrupt local politicians and the prejudice and suspicion of an uneducated populace to set up operations.

Patil played a Harijan village woman, Bindu, who represents progress and leads the women in a revolt against the middlemen and embraces change.

Manthan is available on Zee5.

Bhumika (1977)

Another collaboration of Patil with Benegal, the film was based on the life of a stage and screen actress from the 1930s and 1940s, Hansa Wadkar.

Recalling the film in an interview with Filmfare magazine, Benegal said, “There was a scene in Bhumika where Smita had to look shattered. But she was not getting it right. I was upset. But she said adamantly, 'I can’t do it'. I asked Govind Nihalani (who was the cinematographer of the film) to set up the camera. I went and gave her a tight slap. She was shocked! And I got my shot. Of course, she didn’t speak to me for two or three days after that.”

Patil won the National award for her role in the film, which Benegal believes marks the moment when she found her calling as an actress.

Bhumika is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Jait Re Jait (1977)

Directed by Jabbar Patel, the Marathi-language musical film is the story of the tribal Thakkar community. The plot foregrounds the desire and aspiration of Nagya (Agashe) and Chindi (Patil). Nagya is preparing to follow in his father’s footsteps and be made an acolyte. Chindi is captivated by Nagya and courts him. Patil channelled Chindi’s open sexuality with confidence as the character does not shy away from what her heart desires. The film won her a Filmfare award for Best Actress.

Bhavni Bhavai (1980)

Smita Patil's first collaboration with filmmaker Ketan Mehta in his directorial debut, the Gujarati-language film Bhavni Bhavai, retold a folk tale. The film examines the systemic oppression of Dalits. Patil plays Ujaan, an uninhibited tribal woman who embodies the spirit of liberation.

In an interview with BOMB magazine, Mehta said, “Smita Patil acted in some of the diploma films at the film institute. She wasn’t a known star at that point. She was a television newsreader who wanted to explore new avenues. I became friendly with her before I even graduated. And the relationship flowered. Actually, there were a lot of people: Naseeruddin Shah was also in the film institute at that time, so was Om Puri — who plays the old man in the film. All these people felt as though they had a similar vision and wanted to do something together. It’s a group that’s stuck together, even today.”

Patil did the film free, going on to do one of her most iconic roles in Mehta's Mirch Masala (1987).

Chakra (1981)

The first and last film by writer-director Rabindra Dharamraj, Chakra looked at the lives of the slum dwellers in Bombay. Patil played Amma, a widow who struggles to keep her young son Benwa (Ranjit Chowdhry) out of trouble. A sensuous woman, Amma tries to find some respite in the squalor around her, making no bones about her sexual appetite. Patil won the National award as well as the Filmfare award for the film.

The poster of the film featured Patil barebacked, which angered her as she felt it was voyeuristic and sent the wrong message. The filmmaker had died before he could complete and release the film and the distributor had used the image from the film on the poster without bothering to tell Patil.

Chakra is now available on Zee5.

Umbartha (1982)


Based on the novel Beghar by Shanta Nisal, Jabbar Patel’s Marathi-language film featured Smita Patil as Sulabha, the wife of a lawyer, Subhash (Girish Karnad). When her husband wants to malign a rape victim, Sulabha is shocked and takes up a job as a warden in a rehabilitation home for women. Here, she sets about trying to grapple with the various challenges of her work and finding her own identity.

Incidentally, this was also the time when Patil was shooting for Namak Halaal (1982) with Prakash Mehra. She managed her dates by shooting for Mehra for 10 days and Patel for the next 10. In her book, Maithili Rao said that while Umbartha's screenwriter, the renowned playwright Vijay Tendulkar, was unhappy about Patil being cast in the lead role, on seeing the rushes he told her, “You have gone beyond my script. This role will be remembered for all time.”

Arth (1982)

The breakthrough film of Mahesh Bhatt, Arth was inspired by the relationship the filmmaker had with actress Parveen Babi. In Parveen Babi: A Life, biographer Karishma Upadhyay has quoted Bhatt as saying, “Making Arth was very important to me; it was my survival... this was the most important, urgent experience of [my] life, which was compelling me to share my story. Everyone knew the story was based on my life. I’ve never been secretive about it. Smita [Patil] knew she was playing Parveen and she was absolutely okay with it.”

Although Shabana Azmi had the author-backed role in the film, Patil portrayed the complex character of Kavita with conviction. She played the role of the other woman with a vulnerability, allowing us to experience her unravelling mind and feel empathy towards her.

Mandi (1983)

With director Shyam Benegal

Benegal’s rare satirical comedy was based on Ghulam Abbas’s Urdu short story Aanandi. The film examines religion and politics through the lens of a brothel in the heart of the city. Azmi played the madam, Rukmini, while Patil played Zeenat, a prostitute who is very much in demand. The other cast members included Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Saeed Jaffrey, Om Puri, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan and Ila Arun.

In the interview, Benegal said of his two leading ladies, Azmi and Patil, “Smita was not a trained actor and so was spontaneous. She was a director’s actress. But she didn’t suffer from any inferiority complex vis-a-vis Shabana. She had confidence. Her transformation on screen was remarkable. If you saw her sitting with four people, you wouldn’t notice her. But once the camera was on, she was fascinating.”

Mandi is available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Ardh Satya (1983)

With Om Puri in Ardh Satya

Govind Nihalani’s cop drama, written by Tendulkar, explored the life of a policeman Anant Welankar (Om Puri) who falls in love with a college professor, Jyotsna Gokhale, played by Patil. Welankar encounters an influential local crime boss, Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), whom he is unable to nab through regular means. In his frustration, he starts drinking and his relationship with Jyotsna is threatened.

Besides the villain, the performances of the two stars were the highlight of the film as Patil's character becomes Welankar's moral compass, reminding him of what he stands for in his bleakest moments.

Ardh Satya is available on Zee5.

Mirch Masala (1987)

This is arguably Patil’s most iconic role. Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala was released after Smita Patil's death and is remembered for the fiery portrayal of spice factory worker Sonbai, who stands up to the advances of the subedar or petty official (Naseeruddin Shah). The film examined rebellion in the face of patriarchy and gave us a powerful image of female solidarity. Mirch Masala won the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi.