Book Review: Smith Patil, A Brief Incandescence
Author: Maithili Rao
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: Four and a half
I have always felt a deep and strong connection with one of the best actresses that ever sashayed on the Indian silver screen, Smita Patil. Her looks, smoldering expressions and the raw intensity in her eyes haunts you and captures the heart. There was almost something about Smita-ji that stays forever. For me, she is and will always be a Goddess. And, to think, when she died I was very small. Having been born and brought in an Indian family outside the country, I remember that as a child once Dad took me to a concert when Amitabh Bachchan came to perform. He waded his way on the stage with tears in his eyes. I recalled or, like my Dad explained, that Bachchan said that he just got a bad news that one of his closest friends in the industry, Smita Patil, passed away after delivering a baby boy.
It’s a dichotomy that I watched the movies of Smita-ji after she passed away and whenever I think about her, read her impressive work or watch her, tears flow down the eyes. That’s the kind of cosmic bond I have with one of my favorite actresses. It doesn’t come as a surprise that I ordered Maithili Rao’s book Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence on this personality who is intriguing and soulful at the same time.
The author has provided a detailed insight and description on the life of Smita-ji, the heart of gold that everyone was attuned to and someone who remains unaffected with showbiz, her craze as a ‘biker woman’ and the huge body of work in a short span of time. In my world, she is a Mom, sister, friend and perhaps, we were connected in an earlier birth if something like this exist. She is a national phenomenon which the author has successfully unraveled in decoding Smita the person, daughter, and actress. The beauty of the book lies in the fact that as a reader and admirer, you are invited into her life and give the sense of interacting with the actor where Maithili Rao makes you a part of her existence. It feels that she never left us.
The book is divided into her Puneri roots, reluctance to move to Bombay and her movies described as ‘Her Dasavatars-her artistic outing and how she makes the leap into commercial cinema. The cherry on the cake is the different testimonies given by theater actress Vaishali, filmfare editor Jitesh Pillai’s love letter to his favorite actress, film critic Deepa Deosthalee on ‘Smita and Deepti Naval poem and Nandita Das heart felt letter, ‘Smi: The Sister I never met. It makes you choke with emotions. I did. I cried my heart out. In Smita Patil and her Dasavatars, Maithili Rao shared tit bits on the critically acclaimed Marathi movie, Mantham, Jait re Jait, Bhumika, Umbartha, Arth, Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar, Mandi or the commercial outings where she shared screen presence with Bachchan in Namak Halal and Shakti.
Smita-ji was in a hurry, tells the author who spoke about her questionable choice in mainstream cinema where the actor went on record to say the reason she is acting in them is because she wants her audience to grow bigger to her artistic outings. A Brief Incandescence is not just a book but a real-time experience in re-visiting to the past where there are interesting snippets on Smita-Ji being an unwanted child, her shift from Marathi medium to English, the Doordarshan newscaster who had such an impact on the viewers that Vinod Khanna would storm home to watch this newscaster that haunts or her passion as a biker woman. Yes! I bet that not many of us knew about it.
Born to a politician father Shivaji Rao Patil who served as Union Minister in Maharashtra, Smita-ji has done a lot of selfless work for the poor, in particular women but she is not known to push her way to reach the pinnacle of glory. It’s a rare insight on how Mahesh Bhatt pushed her to be selfish and competitive, two personality traits that never belonged to her. The author offers interesting insights on how she remained unaffected by showbiz where she would go out of her way to hug a spot boy on sets and would brush away the whole ‘I am a star’ kinda thing. Smita Patil was not known to be someone fettered by convention, whether in her choice of friends, films or personal relationships so much that when she constructed her house in Bandra, she wanted the construction workers to be her first guests. What a human tragedy that she wasn’t alive to see the sea-facing bungalow that she spent years in chosing the land or doing the house! The family fed the construction workers in the bungalow after she passed away.
The famous song Aaj Rapat Jaye in Namak Halal is something she abhorred doing and Amitabh Bachchan testified how she has complained about doing something she hates but completed it with some convincing by the supersta. Smita-ji nurtured a passion for photography and her shots were showcased by an IIT professor Trivedi who discovered the rare pictures that she clicked and screened, ‘Through The Eyes of Smita’ who was the new cinema icon and captured the dream girl Hema Malini in all her forms. Such is the power of the author Maithili Rao who makes us discover the real Smita Patil!
“She had full knowledge of what she was doing, how and when to open the lens, take out parts and reassemble them. I was surprised. I asked her, how do you know all this. Camera is my shaukh, she replied. If it is my passion, I will learn everything about it.”
The endearing and humane quality in Smita Patil is narrated by Arun Khopkar, “The stardom didn’t weigh heavy on her shoulders. Once she became a friend and you kept the trust, there was no change in the relationship. She has become a kind of role model for women in Maharashtra. Here, was a woman with no airs, whom you could directly approach. She was direct, she had no contamination…”
It’s hard. I mean, an uphill task to draw loopholes on a book that has been written so well, be it the choice of subtle language that captivates readers or the research to decode the person behind the book. Perhaps, the writer’s quest to justify art movies and discard from commercial ones where Smita’s choice of films are questioned. I think she knew what she was doing and her justification, ‘..was one way of enlarging the audience for art cinema once its actors become stars of mainstream films.’
The afterword by mentor, Shyam Benegal who penned a letter to Vidya tai (Vidyarao Patil), Smita-ji’s Mom in the form of a beautiful poem by Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, best describes the actor and the person behind the frame. A Brief Incandescence: Smita Patil is not just a book but an experience in understanding your favorite actor that still haunts you decades after her death. She was an enigma. It’s a cinema guide where the author has laid bare the rich repertoire of work that Smita Patil has done over the years and details about her filmography is given.
Smita Patil is a phenomenon. Her mythical looks, eyes expressing sparkling fury and is one of the rarest actors who doesn’t need to deliver punching lines but the eyes did the talking. What is it about her that years after she is gone, she stays with you forever? Perhaps, a soulful experience and an enigma with a sixth sense who could get a feel about someone who was on the verge of meeting a near fatal experience read Bachchan. It’s a book that touched my inner soul and that will stay with me forever.
There hasn’t been anyone like Smita-ji and will never be. It comes as no surprise that since 1986, we haven’t had another Smita Patil. We will never have. I have decided to write her a letter every year on her birthday or death anniversary, perhaps my way to be closer to the gentle soul that she was. A healer in the truest sense. I always extend my gratitude to her.
The book shouldn’t be missed for Maithili Rao gives such as brilliant description and her words evoke emotions, building a vivid imagery of the star and the person behind the image. Smita Patil was destined to be in such short time.
Postscript: I got the book on December 13, this year and perhaps, it’s a strange sheer coincidence that it came on her death anniversary.