Smita Patil

On Saturday, Smita Patil would have turned 60 -- undoubtedly a gorgeous, generous-hearted, still tempestuous  60 -- had she not died so tragically at just over half that age. Senior Odissi dancer Jhelum Paranjape marked the day at Savarkar Hall with a four-hour tribute of music, dance and theatre to this woman who had been a star to the world, but a dear childhood friend to her. They had cycled and climbed trees together, travelled the country with the Rashtra Seva Dal kalapathak, performing Bharat Darshan and Azadi ki Jung, and learned Odissi from Guru Shankar Behera. Two years after Smita went, Jhelum paid an enduring tribute to her. She named her dance school Smitalay.

Her tribute on Saturday was something else. Remarkably well-organised for an event that included 60 artists from different fields, with Jhelum's music-composer son, Bunkim, keeping the ball rolling as one of three comperes, the evening threw up several surprises. I had not known that in the colourful weave of Smita's relationships, one strong thread belonged to journalist-writer Bharat Kumar Raut, a friend from her Doordarshan days. Of the several memories he recollects in a moving essay about her, read that evening by veteran actor Pramod Pawar, one seemed to suggest that she had had a premonition of her early death. She couldn't have been more than 18 when, from the top of the Doordarshan tower, she had pointed to a distant, barely visible star and said to Raut, "When I'm gone, look for me there. That's where I want to be."  

The evening presented a clever mix of serious and lively items, amongst which two fetched the loudest applause with shouts of "once more". The first was a lively rendering of the Smita-Amitabh dance number "Aaj rapat jaye toh humein na uthaiyo" from Namak Halal, and the second, "Mera ziskila balam na aaya" from Bhumika, freshly choreographed and performed by the lissome and beauteous Kathak dancer Aditi Bhagwat.

The third loudly applauded performance was a surprise item in every way, a nukkad natak or street play. There was a time in the eighties when we saw street plays everywhere, raising consciousness about the oppression of women, price rise, black-marketing, police high-handedness, corruption. Safdar Hashmi's Delhi-based Jana Natya Manch (Janam), became  one of the inspirational forces in the movement. The Manch, which gathered itself together after Hashmi's brutal killing in Jhandpur in 1989 during a performance of the Janam classic, Halla Bol, is still going strong. But one wasn't aware that in this city, three years after Smita's death, a school teacher named Yusuf Qasmi had founded the Smita Patil Street Theatre to raise consciousness against drug abuse. Now in its 26th year, the SPST has chalked up over 6000 performances of its play Anth (The End), making it to the Limca Book of Records four times. On Saturday we saw a pared-down but resounding version of the play with Qasmi playing the drug addict who stabs his retired school teacher father to death when the poor man can no longer satisfy his demands for money.

If Anth was about a father, son and drugs, a more formal piece of theatre, performed by Suhita Thatte and Neha Shitole, was about a mother, daughter and love. Untitled and never staged before, the brief play looked, non-judgementally, at the painful emotional distance that has grown between the mother and daughter after both have fallen in love with the same man.

Returning home from the show I recalled my own memories of Smita. The first is of her smouldering eyes as they looked up from a sewing machine in Nishant, asking questions that couldn't be asked. Arun Khopkar, her first director has said of those eyes, that when you looked into their unfathomable depths you forgot the rest of the world. You simply stood, like Keats, "Silent upon a peak in Darien".

The second is of sharing a stage with her at a school event when she'd just begun doing commercial films. She came late, wearing make-up and dangling earrings, and whispered ruefully, "Hey sagla karayla lagta" (One has to do all this).

The third is Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya. I'm at a protest meeting, delivering a fiery speech about police atrocities. Before me sits Smita Patil, looking troubled by what I'm saying. Midway through the speech, I stumble. CUT. I stumble again. And again. Over the same word. Smita comes across to me and gives me a warm hug. I get the word right in the next take.

Published On : 21-10-2015