Smita Patil in Mirch Masala.
Smita Patil in Mirch Masala.

Smita Patil | The working woman

Smita Patil was a one-woman antidote to the simpering, witless and doll-like women who paraded across screen

Smita Patil was one of the most convincing working women in Indian cinema. In movie after movie, she picks up a bag, a basket or a pot and heads out to work, whether it’s running a prison, milking cows, or grinding chilli powder.

One of the most enduring images of Patil is of her character stepping out of the safety of her home and into the Mumbai melee, dressed in a plain cotton sari and clutching a bag by her side.

When Shyam Benegal first spotted her, and figured her as a future talent, she was already working, as a Marathi newsreader on Doordarshan. From there, she went on to star in his Charandas Chor, in which she plays a princess (it involves more than just lounging about on a throne), Bhumika, in which she acts for a living, and Mandi, where she appears as a prostitute. Even in the bank account-lining roles of wife, mother and sister, she is hardly a silent presence, her innate intensity, intelligence and rebellion barely contained by the narrative, forever bursting through and demanding answers and a resolution.

Smita Patil in Bhumika.
Smita Patil in Bhumika.

One of her most underrated roles is in Mahesh Bhatt’s Thikana, in which she runs her household with her salary and puts her widowed mother and perennially drunk lawyer brother in peril when she dares to fall in love. In Rabindra Dharmaraj’s Chakra, Patil’s slum-dweller character uses her wits to survive from one day to the next, deftly balancing two lovers and pledging her eternal affection to both of them.

For Indians of a certain vintage, Patil was a one-woman antidote to the simpering, witless and doll-like women who paraded across the screen with layers of make-up, heavy costumes and inappropriate footwear. For Mumbai women, especially, Patil stood in for the working superwoman who cooks for her family, dresses to the nines, makes it to the 8.48am local train, clocks a full day at the office, runs her household by remote, leaps into the 6.18pm suburban train home, brings up children and her husband, and manages to have a social life at the end of it.

Smita Patil With Kulbhushan Kharbanda in Chakra.

In a career tragically cut short, Patil provided more encouragement to ordinary women struggling with life’s big questions than any other actor before or since. She worked hard through her entire career, on the screen and off it, and it showed.

Nandini Ramnath is a film journalist and critic with Scroll.

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