INDIA IS AN ENORMOUS, unbelievably dense country. By consequence, so is its cinema. Western histories of Indian film have conveniently flattened it into a binary: Bollywood versus Parallel Cinema. Bollywood films from Shree 420 (1955) to Om Shanti Om (2007) indulge a popcorn aesthetic; they’re marked by gaudy costumes, vibrancy expressed through song and dance, and are backed by a lot of capital. Parallel Cinema, on the other hand, is a movement that emerged in the 1950s, buoyed by visionaries like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. These were filmmakers who worked on shoestring budgets, striving to tell stories of real people. They had loud American cheerleaders — Pauline Kael, Martin Scorsese, the Criterion Collection — who ingratiated them with cinephiles outside of India.
But these two schools of cinema are more porous than we’d like to admit, and if there is an actress emblematic of Indian cinema’s breadth, it is Smita Patil. Born in 1955 in the Indian city of Pune, she was the rare actress who could muddy the binary between commercial and art films, traversing these two cinematic vocabularies with ease. Patil was dark-skinned, a rarity for a country that’s always had a noxious love for fair-skinned women. She was prolific — she began acting in 1974, before she turned 20, amassing more than 80 screen credits in less than a decade — and brazenly outspoken about her feminist politics in an industry generally allergic to them.
Patil’s legacy has become colossal. Critics evoke her name when they want to crown Indian cinema’s next rising star. Nandita Das, Swati Sen, and Chitrangada Singh are just three of the dusky, gifted young actresses who have been deemed “the next Smita Patil.” What hurried Patil’s canonization was not just her ungodly talent but her untimely death. In December of 1986, Patil fell into a coma after giving birth to her first and only child, Prateik. She never woke up. She was 31.
Patil’s death was mired in confusion. To this day, there’s a vocal contingent of the Indian public who thinks that she died of heartbreak. The suggestion is absurd, but look at the history of Indian cinema and you’ll understand why people are attached to this sentiment. You’ll notice a bevy of actresses whose off-screen tragedies have incited tabloid gossip, and hyperbolic conspiracy theories to match. Divya Bharti, a bundle of promise, fell from a balcony in a still-unsolved death at the age of 19. Madhubala was 36 when she died from a ventricular septal defect — literally a hole in her heart. At 39, Meena Kumari drank herself to death. Parveen Babi, the first Indian actress to land on the cover of TIME, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and died alone at 55.
Like these women, Patil’s death encouraged lazy symbolism, and the Indian public was happy to engage. A woman who worked so tirelessly to complicate the depiction of women in Indian cinema, to fuse her off-screen politics with on-screen roles, died from the weight of femininity expressed in barefaced terms — motherhood. She was Mother India made flesh.
Maithili Rao’s Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence (Harper Collins India, 2015) participates in this heavy-handed myth-making. It’s a sprawling book, more than 300 pages long, and it assumes the structure of Cahiers du Cinema’s “Anatomy of an Actor” series, canvassing a dozen or so of Patil’s roles. But it breaks from this structure with biographical details, weaving through Patil’s early life, her foray into cinema at the age of 19, and how she gingerly rose to fame. In her own words, Rao strives to depict Patil as “a human, not a devi to be put on a pedestal,” using the Hindi word for goddess, nodding to Patil’s cosmic legacy.
Rao’s mission is noble — despite the mythologies that swirl around her, Patil has never been given the sustained critical attention that her career demands — and Rao is particularly well qualified for the job. She has quite a pedigree as a long-time film scholar and columnist for some of India’s most respected weeklies. Why, then, does Rao walk into the exact problem that she seeks to correct? Her prose is blazingly purple; her tone is funereal; and her claims are riddled with clichés. Patil’s eyes were “windows to her soul”; her controversial marriage to her co-star Raj Babbar was “the elephant in the room when it [came] to [her] life.” When you strip these sentences down to their core, the ideas behind them are utterly mundane.
To guide her scholarship, Rao casts Patil as dasavatar, borrowing from the mythological Hindu concept of a deity who takes on multiple personas. “An actor,” Rao declares, “has many faces. It is for filmmakers to discover and create roles to highlight these complementary facets reflected through subtleties of performance.” Think of Vishnu, the Hindu god who assumed 10 different forms throughout history, including the blue-skinned Krishna and Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. It’s an appealing critical apparatus, if at odds with Rao’s refusal to deify Patil.
Moreover, a dasavatar has an immutable, static core — that’s the point. Krishna will always be Vishnu when stripped down to his soul; so will Buddha. Rao, for all of her analytical posturing, can’t identify this in Patil. An essence of Patil, the person, doesn’t emerge.
Patil’s very personhood gets diluted in a sea of adjectives. “Some words recur with metronomic regularity,” Rao writes, “Down to earth, warm, sincere, rooted, grounded, compassionate, sensitive, caring, carefree — myriad adjectives, with their infinite connotations, adding up to a woman with high emotional intelligence.” At the beginning of one chapter, Patil’s trademark as an actress is her intensity — the hard work she puts in and the fruits it yields. Pages later, her characteristic trait is her ease. Rao litters her pages with contradictions, striking a declarative tone each time. Patil is a woman of “unsurpassable perfection.” She is, as the very title of the book suggests, “incandescent.” She is everything all at once, and she is nothing.
Patil’s life has been etched in broad strokes since her death, and, in Rao’s hands, the finer lines remain faint — you only get a sense of the size of her talent, not its depth. Indeed, Rao is more interested in giving us readings of Patil’s films than a portrait of an artist, and these readings tend to be cumbersome. You begin to feel that Rao is scavenging for a subtext in these films that just isn’t there. Consider, for example, Patil’s role in the Bollywood film Namak Halaal (1982). Of her few Bollywood roles, it is perhaps her most indelible. She plays the heroine to the proverbial king of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan. The most famous scene from that movie happens to be one of the most famous scenes in Bollywood history: a song-and-dance sequence in the rain between the hero and the sari-clad heroine. Patil is coy and skittish, and, as a result, impossible to look away from. She is completely unlike the other Bollywood starlets of the era.
But Rao drains this of its fun, referring to Patil’s forays in Bollywood as “inexcusably long” and positing Patil’s Bollywood roles as a mere flirtation with a school of cinema that was, ultimately, beneath her talent.
In these spaces, Rao’s own biases about Bollywood bleed into her text. She commands an understanding of Indian cinema that stretches beyond Bollywood and demands the same of her readers. It’s troubling, after all, when a film like Slumdog Millionaire can win the hearts and minds of the global public, hungry for a story of capitalist triumph distilled through the fiction of a brown boy in poverty. But these feelings about Bollywood are misplaced in Rao’s book. In Bollywood, the cinema of the people, Patil was an everywoman — the rare actress whose dark-skinned beauty mirrored and affirmed moviegoers who often couldn’t see themselves in screen actresses. To Rao, though, Patil was somehow too good for Bollywood, in spite of this basic kinship that she forged with the audiences who devoured those very movies.
In retracing a woman whose life has been obscured over time, Rao starts to play a game of fill-in-the-blanks with Patil, resting it on her scattered filmography. It’s easy to believe that some actors give performances so rich, so substantive, that we can mine them for greater truths about the actor as a person. “Somewhere along the way,” Rao writes of Patil in Bhumika (1977), “the many roles she plays on screen in a long career fuse into the woman off screen.” In this reading, Patil’s performances are a simulacrum of the person whom we’ve lost. Though Rao acknowledges that this idea is romantic and simple, that doesn’t stop her from plumbing it.
Rao frequently cites Patricia Bosworth’s Jane Fonda: The Private Life of a Public Woman (2011) as an instructive text. I’m a fan of Bosworth’s book as the dissection of a woman whose public life, coupled with her filmography, demands treatment that puts the two in concert. Rao openly uses Bosworth’s book as a springboard for the way she approaches Patil’s work. There are, of course, key differences between the two women, but the comparison has an appealing symmetry. Fonda and Patil emerged from two divergent cultural contexts, only a few years apart. They were both known for their brazen leftist politics and screen-stealing talent. Over time, both women developed public personas so feverish that they began creeping into their performances. Look at their respective filmographies and you’ll notice a certain through-line between the politics they trumpeted off screen and the roles that they took. Fonda, in her career after Klute, assumed roles that reenacted her transformation from a young rich girl with a purr of a voice to a hardened, earnest activist. As Patil intensified her vocal leftist politics off-screen, she took on roles that forged with her political persona.
In other words, both Fonda and Patil were actresses who accrued a perceptual baggage thanks to their off-screen activities. For better or for worse, they were doomed to carry that baggage for the rest of their careers. But the difference between Bosworth’s and Rao’s books — what makes the former formidable, the latter merely ambitious — is that Fonda is still around. She can shed new insights on her roles. She can dispel the phony analytical fictions that arise from scholarly readings of her films. She can key Bosworth, and the rest of us, into the psychology and process of her acting. Patil is dead. And in spite of everything that she gave us on film, she is no longer here to speak for herself, to pull herself off the pedestal of a devi.
Mayukh Sen is a New York–based editor and writer. He is currently the Editorial Director at This., and he has written for Pitchfork, The Caravan, VICE, BuzzFeed, Roads & Kingdoms, and other publications.