Congratulations are in order for Katrina Kaif. The lady now not only has the flattest abs in the world which delivered a wonderful performance in her most recent film, she also has received the Smita Patil Memorial Award for her contribution to acting. Yes you heard that right. While all our energy is going into not wondering what on earth the organisers were thinking, there is a silver lining to this event.
In recognising how inappropriate it is to give this award to Katrina, we remember yet again the immense talent of the late Smita Patil. Her untimely death was a huge loss to Indian cinema, however in her short career, she has left behind a legacy of powerful female characters and an enviable list of performances.
Born into a Maharashtrian family in Pune, Smita first faced the camera as a newscaster for Doordarshan in Mumbai. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Smita performed in over 80 films, both in Hindi and Marathi. After making her debut in 1975 with Shyam Benegalâs âCharandas Chorâ, Smita Patil was an unstoppable force. She soon became one of the most recognised face of the New Wave movement in Indian cinema with contemporaries like Shabana Azmi, Nasseruddin Shah, Om Puri, Anant Nag and Kulbhushan Kharbanda.
Smita Patilâs finest performances are from this era. Between the late 70s to the mid-eighties, she essayed characters that were path-breaking, questioning the conventions of a male dominated society with intelligence, spunk and a tremendous sense of justice. In âManthanâ (The Churning), a film about the sexual exploitation of women fuelled by feudalism in India, she played the wounded first wife who watches as her husband falls for another woman who has been forcibly abducted and raped by all the men in the household.
However it was in âBhumikaâ, based on the memoirs of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar that Smita truly came into the limelight. The actress, still in her twenties, essayed a character between the ages of 18-45, as she tries to seek fulfilment and find love through a series of disappointing relationships.
Itâs not easy to forget that silent communication with Girish Karnad in âManthanâ, or the passionate love-making with Om Puriâs character in âAakroshâ, the memory of which torments him in jail. She frequented slums in Mumbai to prepare for her role of Amma in âChakraâ, an underrated classic about slum dwellers and their plight.
âUmbarthaâ was another important film which depicted a woman, Sulabha, âstepping outâ literally and otherwise from the confines of her home and her traditional roles as a mother and homemaker. In spite of the opposition she faces from her husband and mother-in-law, Sulabha, played superbly by Smita, takes on the challenging role of being a superintendent in a womenâs prison.
Whether it was serious films like âBazaarâ, âMandiâ, âArthâ, or commercial ones like âNamak Halalâ and âDard ka Rishtaâ, Smita Patil handled both genres with ease. She consciously chose characters that were multi-faceted, intelligent, independent and explored issues concerning a womanâs freedom, sexuality and independence.
On the centenary of Indian cinema in April 2013, Forbes included her performance as Sonbai in âMirch Masalaâ on its list, "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema". In a career that lasted just over a decade, Smita Patil won two National Awards a Filmfare award and in 1985, the Padmashri for her outstanding contribution to cinema.
Sadly, her promising career was tragically cut short when she died after the birth of her first child. Several of her completed films released after her death, and even today, decades later, her work remains a shining example of excellence in cinema. It is indeed ironical and quite insulting to Smitaâs memory that an award in her name was given to an actor whose career has stood for the antithesis of Smitaâs cinema.
While The Priyadarshini Academy that chose Katrina for the award is largely to be blamed for this gaffe, perhaps the occasion calls for all female actors to take a look at what their choices of films will speak about them when they are gone. Itâs a reminder that cinema is more than the business it does. Itâs art, itâs thought and itâs eternal. Just like the unforgettable Smita Patil.