While shooting for Mrinal Sen’s “Akaler Sandhane” in Bengal, Smita Patil had great difficulty in getting good Marathi vegetarian food and so cooked her own dishes by borrowing vegetables and oil from the chef.
Co-actor Dhritiman Chaterji recalls that apart from Patil, all the caste and crew members were resolutely non-vegetarian.
“Mrinal da being a good East Bengali had to have fish all the time. That must have turned her stomach. She used to borrow vegetables and cooking oil from the cook and made her own food on a stove,” Chaterji reminisces in the “Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence” by author-film critic Maithili Rao.
Late cinematographer K K Mahajan also remembered Patil cooking simple rice and vegetables for herself during the entire shoot.
“Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence”, published by HarperCollins India, tells her remarkable story, tracing it from her childhood to stardom, controversial marriage and untimely death.
Her close friends remember ‘Smi’ as outspoken and carefree, not beyond hurling abuses or taking off on bikes on impromptu joyrides. Filmmakers Shyam Benegal and Jabbar Patel and co-stars Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, talk about Patil’s dedication to her craft and her intuitive pursuit of that perfect take.
The book also includes a critique of the films that defined her and read like a roster of the best of New Indian Cinema: “Bhumika”, “Mandi”, “Manthan”, “Umbartha”, “Bhavni Bhavai”, “Akaler Sandhane”, “Chakra”, “Chidambaram” and “MirchMasala” among others. Maithili Rao also studies Patil’s many unfortunate forays into mainstream commercial cinema.
Highlighting the “publicity game” at Cannes, Rao cites an example of the 1970s when “Nishant” was in the competition section at the prestigious festival. NDFC had sent some posters of the film which had not reached Cannes.
It was then that the film’s director Shyam Benegal came up with an interesting idea.
Azmi recalls, “He said, ‘I want both of you to wear your best south Indian saris and walk the promenade from eight in the morning.’ So there we were, parading in our silk saris when everyone else was in beachwear! We were such a sight! When anyone looked at us, we’d grab them and say, “We have a screening at such and such time, please come.”
Another nugget Rao mentions is that Patil had developed scabies while staying at an Adivasi village to get into her role in Jabbar Patel’s National Award winning Marathi film “Jait Re Jait”.
Patil, who played the role of Chindi started living with the Thakars, a scheduled Adivasi tribe in Maharashtra, not just to get into the role but be one of them.
“She played with the children with no reservations or inhibitions, to the extent that she developed a skin infection. The doctor in the director saw her scratching her hands and exclaimed, ‘You have scabies!’
“Never mind, I will scratch my hands as part of my character’s behaviour and you can apply ointment after the shot, was Patil’s insouciant reply,” the book says.
It also mentions how Patil was asked to learn riding and fencing for the swashbuckler film-within film “Bhumika” by its director Benegal.
During the film’s shooting, near-disaster struck. “As Benegal tells it, when she was rehearsing with a foil, just before the shot, the stunt master did a certain movement, and by mistake, Patil moved and caught the blow right across her cheek. There was this huge purple welt across her face.
“Luckily, her skin did not tear. Oherwise, there would have been a scar and she would have had to get plastic surgery done to remove it,” Rao writes.
She says her book is not a conventional biography or a collection of anecdotes.
“It charts Patil’s life in cinema and examines her significant films in their context and from the perspective of distance that time has given us,” she says.