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 in Indian cinema, Smita Patil. Her looks, smoldering expressions and the raw intensity in her eyes simply stays with you and capture your heart. 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 Dad took me to a concert when Amitabh Bachchan performed. He came with tears in his eyes. I recall 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 in my eyes. That’s the kind of cosmic bond I have with one of my favorite actresses. I ordered the book of Maithili Rao’s Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence.
The author has provided a detailed insight and description on the life of Smita-ji, her heart of gold and someone who remains unaffected with showbiz, her craze as a ‘biker woman’ and her body of work. In my world, she is a Mom, sister, friend and perhaps, we were connected in an earlier birth if something like that ever exist. She is a national phenomenon which the author has successfully unraveled in 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, 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 theater actress Vaishali, filmfare editor Jitesh Pillai 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 commercial outings where she shared screen presence with Bachchan in Namak Halal and Shakti.
Smita-ji was in a hurry, tells the author who speaks about her questionable choice in mainstream cinema where the actor went on record to say the reason is she wants her audience to grow bigger to her art outings. A Brief Incandescence is not just a book but a real-time experience going to the past where interesting snippets on Smita-Ji being an unwanted child, her shift from Marathi medium to English, the Doordarshan newscaster that had such an impact on the audience 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 glory. It’s a rare insight on how Mahesh Bhatt pushes her to be selfish and competitive, two personality traits that were not her at all. Maithili Rao provides 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 feign away the whole ‘I am a star’ kinda thing. Smita Patil is not known to be someone bound 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 to choose. The family fed the construction workers in the bungalow.
The famous Aaj Rapat Jaye in Namak Halal is something she abhorred doing and Amitabh Bachchan testified how she has complained that she hates doing it but completed it with some convincing. Smita-ji has nurtured a passion for photography where her shots were showcased 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 raptly captured the dream girl Hema Malini. 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 afterward by her mentor, Shyam Benegal who wrote 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. 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. It’s a cinema guide where the author has laid bare the work that Smita Patil has done over the years and detail about each movie is written.
Smita Patil is a phenomenon. Her mythical looks, eyes expressing sparking fury and one of the rarest actors who doesn’t need to deliver punching lines but the eyes do 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 met a near fatal experience read Bachchan. It’s a book that touched my inner soul and I know 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 span of time.
Postscript: I got the book on December 13, this year and perhaps, it’s a strange sheer coincidence.