Smita Patil: The Pole Star of Indian Parallel Cinema

Smita is the antithesis to the usual representation of women in the commercial films.
Smita Patil: The Pole Star of Indian Parallel Cinema

Indian Parallel Cinema retained the Indian society's realism, which Bollywood has forever chosen to ignore. And the reason can't be less obvious. Mumbai's film industry or Bollywood mainly caters to entertainment and rows the boat in the river of money. When one states this, it is not to be mistaken that Bollywood doesn't produce good or remarkable movies. It does, for sure. Otherwise it wouldn't have been one of the largest film industries in the world.

However, one also cannot completely deny the opinion that in the race of entertainment, Bollywood for a major number of times left behind the realistic struggles, challenges and battles of the Indians on the ground. The sheer existence of the Indian society with all its beauty and ugliness, joys and sorrows, and its multi-cultural pluralism was mostly ignored by mainstream Bollywood filmmakers. There lies the roots of the Indian Parallel Cinema, which attempted to portray faces of the Indian society which Bollywood did not.

Bollywood was not putting women at the heart of the story for decades. At a time when women characters were mostly a symbol of support to the male character, parallel cinema upheld the stature of women by prioritizing their struggles, which they faced on a daily basis in the society. They focused on realism and brought to light the actual emotions that women in the spectrum of daily life experiences. This ranged from the societal norms to the dreams and desires that a woman held within her.

The Indian entertainment industry lacked powerful women characters for a long time and it was the characters in Parallel Cinema that gave the existence of women an empowering stand. This is space where an actress like Smita Patil entered and blazed a trail, the like of which was never witnessed till the dawn of the new millennium.

Smita Patil has been labeled as the Queen of Indian Parallel cinema, the antithesis to the usual representation of women in the commercial films. Through the short span of her film career, she portrayed powerful women characters and presented the reality of societal norms. However, she proceeded to the heavenly abode at an early age and what remained with us was her timeless performance and characters which actresses of today still look up to. Here are two films where Smita portrayed influencing characters whose existence was more near to the fictional. Bhumika (1997) by Shyam Begal and Mirch Masala (1987) by Ketan Mehta were two films that gave the audience very impactful women characters.

Bhumika (1977)

Patil, through her performance in Bhumika highlighted the importance of women making their own choices in all aspects of their lives. This narrative by Shyam Benegal, which was released in the year 1977, explored the journey of a woman in search of love and fulfillment through a series of relationships. However, she ends up trapped in this journey. Usha, the lead character in the film stands against her sexual confinement and objects to the role that society expects her to play. Smita takes up the character of Usha and sprinkles it with apprehensive playfulness and cheeky disobedience in order to untangle the life of a married woman with bigger dreams.

The beauty of this film is justified in the way it provides so many perceptions and a women's freedom of choice in terms of their life partners. The flickering notion of emotional intelligence and the existence of the essential loneliness of a human being is put to the fore throughout the movie. With Benegal's flawless direction, the audience gets to witness the other side of sexuality as being both a person's strength and weakness. It displays a woman's freedom to choose and prioritise their own happiness and fulfillment.

Mirch Masala (1987)

Patil's career was a short one as she embraced an early death. She was last seen on the screen in the character of Sonbai in the film Mirch Masala. The movie was screened after her demise. This movie was upheld with valiant realism, which was layered with melodramatic overtones that build up to one of the most memorable climaxes to exist in the Indian cinema. The film tells the story of a common woman who morphed into a living symbol of rebellion.

Mirch Masala is a film by Ketan Mehta which revolves around the story of the women of a village in Kutch who fight against their tyrannical 'subedar'. Naseeruddin Shah, another icon of the parallel cinema plays the character of the subedar. Shah's character is in love with Sonbai, thus the men of the village ask her to submit to him. Sonbai refuses it and rebels by taking refuge in the chili grinding factory where she works. She adheres to her decision despite lots of pressure from the village elders. She locks herself and the fellow workers inside the factory.

This action of Sonbai's receives mixed reaction from the village men and women. This highlights the moral weaknesses and strengths of the villagers. The entire movie is a representation of the grace of each character which they use as a weapon to maintain their self-worth.

The legend lives on

Going down memory lane, Smita Patil's roles have impacted, inspired, and amused the entire country. Patil's legend lives on through her contribution to Indian cinema, in redefining the Indian woman and interpreting her complexity in memorable films. We can always waive off art, cinema and the fictional characters in comparison to real life but one must not shy away from how these characters are breathing amongst us, fighting the same battles as we do.

Smita Patil was every parallel cinema director's first preference and grabbed the attention of many cinephiles.

Women, even in the present day are stuck in the loop of societal norms where they are not able to choose their life partner or opt for a career of their choice before or after their marriage. Family planning or sexual preferences are aspects which are still considered as taboo in many parts of the society. It is movies like Bhumika, which gave the women certain fictional characters to look up to.

Apart from these two films, Manthan, Chakra and Mandi were other such Parallel Cinema films which gave the Indian audience empowered women characters through Smita Patil's acting skills. These films explored the themes of urban tragedy of the slums and plight of women, abusive marriages, sexual attraction that transgresses marital conventions and female sexuality.

The present day scenario still misses the presence of Smita Patil and her influence. She is still the prototype of a woman that most woman would like themselves to be. All that remains is her memories and aura which empowers women even today. Indian Parallel Cinema was blessed to have been graced with a gem like Smita Patil.

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