Friday, November 20, 2015

"The magic of Smita-ness" - a book about Smita Patil

[Did a version of this review for Open magazine]

One of the most cutting things a reviewer can say about a personality-centred book is that it is hagiographical; that the author has chosen veneration over discernment. This charge is sometimes a little unfair though (and I may be saying this from a position of defensiveness, having just written a book about a film personality myself). It is one thing for a book to be deceitful or compromised – perhaps because it is an authorized, controlled biography, or because the writer has a hidden agenda – but when the foundation stones are honesty and seriousness of intent, why should someone writing about a favourite person be obliged to maintain a discreet distance? After all, the best reason to write a book is that you are driven to write it – passionate about the subject, more willing to devote years of your life to it than most other fans would be. Surely a truthful expression of that passion is preferable to sap-headed “objectivity”.

Which brings me to Maithili Rao’s intense, deeply felt tribute Smita Patil, whose subtitle “A Brief Incandescence” is not just an apt description of Patil’s much-too-short life and how brightly she shone in the time given to her, but may also prepare you for the sometimes florid writing in these pages.

Rao’s feelings are clear from the opening lines: “She was Indian cinema’s Everywoman. Her genius shone through in rendering the everywoman extraordinaire with a signature hypnotic allure, a depth charged with intensity that exploded into emotions on celluloid, grand and subtle, dramatic and nuanced all at once”. Some might think this effusive enough for one page, but a few lines down you find, among other descriptions, “haunting presence”, “finely sculpted face”, “wilful and generous mouth”, “voice vibrating with emotion”, “proud carriage of a born fighter”, "infinite inflections", "girlish trills of gaiety", and “tensile strength of steel balanced with the suppleness of a reed”.

I list these partly to caution those of you who get put off by this sort of prose, but also to tell the more open-minded among you to persevere regardless – because there are many good things in this book if you are interested in Patil and the cinema that she was such a vital part of. Speaking for myself, mild annoyance with some of the overwriting and the repeated descriptions of Patil’s bone structure gave way to a growing respect for the author’s Smita-adoration and a willingness to be swept along by it.

This isn’t a conventional biography, Rao says in her introduction. She does provide basic background information about the Pune girl who went to Mumbai in her teens, became a Marathi newsreader for Doordarshan in the early 1970s and then found her way into cinema (and into the moment of the Indian New Wave) via Arun Khopkar’s diploma short Teevra Madhyam, but the bulk of the book looks at Patil’s key films, their sociological impact, what her presence added to them, and the reservoirs in her personality that informed her performances. Through her own analyses and the observations of those who had known Patil, she dissects her strengths as a performer: stillness, intensity, instinct – the last of those being particularly important for someone who, unlike most of her peers, had never been to the FTII or studied acting formally.

Rao’s assertions that “there are more peaks [of great performances] in Smita’s extraordinary career than any comparable figure of that time”, or that she was “indubitably the pole star of parallel cinema”, are debatable – but they form the basis of the book’s longest chapter, “Smita Patil and her Dasavatars”, in which she closely examines such films as Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika and Manthan, Jabbar Patel’s Jait re Jait and Umbartha, Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth and Mrinal Sen’s Akaler Sandhane; the two chapters that follow deal with other movies, ranging from Ketan Mehta’s superb Bhavni Bhavai to Sagar Sarhadi’s clunker Haadsa. Around this point she also rips into the many low-grade mainstream films that Patil chose to do. The little boy in me, who had loved B Subhash’s Dance Dance when it came out, bristled a little at Rao’s dismissal of it, but then ceded her points. (Even at age 10, I think I had understood that the long-suffering sister and wife Smita played in that film was a cipher, her fate little more than a pretext for Mithun to flex both muscles and angst, and for Shakti Kapoor to make an uncharacteristic sacrifice in the climax.) Happily, she does also acknowledge some of Patil’s more notable mainstream work such as JP Dutta’s epic Ghulami, a film that might have been pitch perfect if Dharmendra had been 15 years younger when it was made. (He and Smita are cast as childhood friends!)

Though I haven’t followed Patil’s career anywhere near as closely as Rao has, and even when I didn’t remember details of all the films discussed here, there is much in these analyses to chew on and appreciate, or – as a professional nitpicker – to disagree with. For instance, the 1974 Charandas Chor is very far from “a minor film”, in my view – it deserves to be rediscovered as a jewel of the New Wave, one of our best theatre-to-film adaptations, and a view of Benegal and his cinematographer Govind Nihalani working near full steam; personally I rate it above Nishant, which Rao spends many pages discussing. That said, Nishant is a more important Smita Patil film, and a starting point in her soon-to-be celebrated rivalry with Shabana Azmi.

I also enjoyed the close readings of specific scenes, such as the controversial bathing sequence from Rabindra Dharmraj’s Chakra, which has been both celebrated as unflinchingly realistic and derided as “poverty porn”; as Rao points out, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Speaking as a male, I should say here that I found Patil genuinely sexy in that scene, and I would have trouble with any reading that strictly compartmentalized it as “frank but not titillating”. Its effect can vary depending on who is looking at it and in what context. And it should be possible to make two opposing suggestions: that the director’s intentions may have been questionable, but that Patil still found a way, through the deploying of confident, assertive sexuality, to keep the balance of power tilted in her favour. As she often did in other situations, in other films.


There is a raw, breathless urgency in much of Rao's writing. The prose is conversational and informal at times (“Smita had no prudish issues”) to the extent that she even uses half-sentences at times, or lapses into the present tense while describing an aspect of Patil’s personality (“There is an intriguing contrary streak in Smita”). At other times she slips into scholar mode and into the language of academia, as if by habit. Between the two extremes, I usually preferred the former mode, which provides a firsthand sense of how personal all this is to her.

Though she discusses such character traits as Patil’s bohemian directness and generosity of spirit, and her relationships with her sister Anita and with friends, Rao is discreet about some things. She doesn’t spend much time on Patil’s controversial relationship with the married Raj Babbar, because she never got to speak firsthand with either of them and didn’t want to rely on hearsay and speculation. There are anecdotes about other aspects of Patil’s life though, such as the one about her draping handloom sarees over her jeans before going on air as a newsreader. And generously, she shares her stage with other Smita fans near the end of the book: there are short, heartfelt pieces by writer Deepa Deosthalee and theatre actor Vaishali Chakravarty, reminders of how thoroughly movie stars can imprint themselves on our lives.

But coming back to those Dasavatars, and to Rao’s thesis that they outshine – in quantity and quality – the heights attained by most other actresses. “I would personally place her above [Nargis and Meena Kumari] because she was untouched by film-industry baggage of stereotypes, expectations and practiced feminine airs and graces they were asked to adopt,” she writes. Actually, I think this same assertion could be used to make exactly the opposite case; skilled actors who operate mostly in the idiom of commercial cinema can face serious challenges in locating truth within an often-synthetic framework.

In any case it is hard to make such comparative assessments given that most of Patil’s best work was done by age thirty. With more time, there may have been more peaks – but it is equally likely that there may have been a rapid decline, a larger proportion of bad choices, and a consequent paring down of her reputation. The “what if” question is inescapable.

And perhaps this is why the story in Rao’s book that I thought most poignant was the one about a letter Smita wrote to director Saeed Mirza after they made Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai? together. How deeply do you believe in your political ideology and how long will you adhere to it, she asked. There was no apparent context for this question, but there is an urgency to it, a possible lament for the ephemeral nature of all things: principles, strong emotions, life itself. In another anecdote involving Amitabh Bachchan and his Coolie accident, Rao implies that Smita had a sixth sense. Could she have had a premonition of her own fate, and about the future arcs of her colleagues, many of whom were once associated purely with a cinema of integrity but who learned a few things about compromise over the years? Looking at the young woman with the soulful eyes on this book’s cover, one is tempted to say yes.

[Some posts about other notable biographies of actors who died young: Lois Banner on Marilyn Monroe; Vinod Mehta on Meena Kumari]

1 comment:

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