“I first set eyes on her in an FTII diploma film directed by Arun Khopkar. I think it was called Teevra Madhyam. There was a long shot in which she was playing the tanpura. I was struck by her raw beauty and the stillness she exuded. She was born for the camera. It lingered over her face and she held it captive without the slightest effort,” said Shabana Azmi, while speaking about her late colleague Smita Patil. “A few years later I met Smita Patil on the sets of Shyam Benegal’s Nishant. It was a difficult part for someone as young as her. In the film, her husband played by Naseerudin Shah gets enamoured by my character Sushila, kidnaps her and brings her home. Smita smolders in jealousy, anger, hurt and rage but doesn’t say anything. Her face expresses it all.”
She stated, “It is clearly an antagonistic relationship between the two women. It is to Shyam Benegal’s credit and understanding of the complexities of feudal societies, ably aided by Vijay Tendulkars script that two small but significant scenes stand out. Smita comes into my room to offer me food because I haven’t eaten for days. On the surface matter of fact, slightly resentful too, Smita played that scene with such a layer of empathy that the plight of the two women bonded together through a patriarchal feudal structure, brought tears to my eyes without even trying.”
Azmi and Patil worked together in a bevy of films. Looking back, the former added, “That is the crux of what film acting is about, a collaborative effort in which how good your work is depends on the work of your co actors. I have had the privilege of working with Smita in Nishant, Arth, Mandi and Oonch Neech Beech in roles far removed from each other. I felt both challenged and inspired by her as a co-actor.”
Azmi then went on say she and Patil had a lot in common. “We had so much in common; we came from similar backgrounds, were launched by the same director, had similiar aesthetics and worked in the same kind of cinema. Today in public memory Smita and I are so closely bonded together that I feel I could well be Shabana Patil and she Smita Azmi! She had a short career span and yet 29 years after she passed away Parallel cinema in India will never be mentioned without Smita Patil’s name emblazoned in golden letters.” Talking about the rough patch between them, Azmi mentioned, “Alas! We could never be friends. The rivalry between us, some of it manufactured by the media and some of it real, caused friction. I’ve said this before and I acknowledge it again that I have been guilty of making uncharitable remarks about her and I regret it. There were efforts at reconciliation and we were able to maintain civility but it never turned into friendship.”
Azmi continued, “But at no point did that spill over to our families. Smita was a star by the time she did Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar and obviously she was given the best room in the hotel. My mother Shaukat Kaifi was doing a small but significant role in the film. When she joined the unit in Hyderabad two weeks later Smita insisted on giving up her room for my mother and quietly shifted into a smaller room. It was only later that mummy realised what Smita had done and protested but Smita would have none of it. Such was the graciousness that came naturally to her because she was the daughter of Vidyatai and Shivajirao Patil who had instilled such impeccable values in her.” She spoke about how Patil’s family was much like her own. “Her family Ma, Pappa, Anita and Manya have embraced me as one of their own. Human relationships are complex and I am deeply grateful for the trust they have placed in me. It’s a very personal thing I’m sharing. There was a time in young Prateiks life when he was troubled, directionless and didn’t know what to do. Both, Ma and Anita asked me to take over his charge. Need I say more?” she concluded.