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How being a newsreader helped Smita Patil bag her first short film – Anniversary special

On the actress's 66th birth anniversary, veteran sound designer Hitendra Ghosh recalls how he spotted her reading 'Baatmya' on a black-and-white TV set in Pune.

Smita Patil in Mirch Masala

Keyur Seta

Smita Patil (17 October 1955–13 December 1986) needs no introduction. Despite being part of the film industry for just about a dozen years, she achieved legendary status, acting in over 70 movies in such a short span. She died of complications in childbirth aged only 31.

Some of the films in which Patil delivered notable performances are Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Jait Re Jait (1977, Marathi), Aakrosh (1980), Namak Halaal (1982), Bazaar (1982), Arth (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), Mandi (1983), Tarang (1984) and Mirch Masala (1987).

Smita Patil's 10 most memorable roles

But not many today know that Patil started off as a Marathi newsreader on Doordarshan while still in her teens. And it was this job that gave her the chance to be in front of the camera for the first time in a work of fiction.

Smita Patil in Jait Re Jait

The project was Arun Khopkar’s 1974 graduation film at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Teevra Madhyam. Interestingly, the film saw Smita Patil paired with Ketan Mehta, who also graduated from the institute that year, and was to direct her later in Mirch Masala.

Patil and Mehta played Shama and Ravi, a romantic couple who are members of a Marxist outfit. While Shama is a classical musician, Ravi’s time is spent working for the party. There comes a time when Shama has to choose between music and Ravi’s party work.

Patil bagged the role after sound designer Hitendra Ghosh, who also graduated from the FTII that year and was part of the film, was convinced about her suitability for the part and got in touch with her at Doordarshan.

Hitendra Ghosh

Recalling those days, Ghosh told, "Teevra Madhyam is a musical note which comes between ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’. It’s very difficult to sing that note. I wanted someone who would fit that role. TV had just started in India in black and white. We used to walk towards the Deccan Gymkhana from the institute and there used to be a TV shop. At that time, Marathi news [Baatmya] used to be aired. Smita Patil was the newsreader. She was very young then; just around 18."

Ghosh had to put in a lot of effort to contact Patil. "I found her very attractive [for the role]. So I rang up Doordarshan. There were no mobile phones then. I kept calling for two or three days. Finally, I could talk to Smita," he said.

Patil agreed to act in the film despite the tough conditions. "I told her there was a role [for her] but there would be no payment and asked whether she would do it. She said, ‘Yes, yes, I will do it.’ It was a three-day shoot as it was only a 20-minute movie. Then she became friendly with us,” said Ghosh.

Smita Patil in Aakrosh (1980)

It was because of Teevra Madhyam that Patil got her first film with Shyam Benegal. Their association continued later with Manthan, Bhumika, Kondura (1977) and Mandi. "When Shyam was making Nishant, I told him that there is this girl called Smita. I introduced her to him. He was also my examiner," said Ghosh. 

Six years ago, Shabana Azmi spoke to The Deccan Chronicle newspaper about Patil’s first appearance in Teevra Madhyam. She said, "I first saw her in an FTII diploma film directed by Arun Khopkar — I think it was called Teevra Madhyam. There was a long shot in which she was playing the tanpura [a stringed musical instrument]. I was struck by her raw beauty and the stillness she exuded. She was born for the camera."

Watch Teevra Madhyam here.

Smita Patil, Shyam Benegal and Shabana Azmi at an event