Smita Patil (17 October 1955 – 13 December 1986) was an Indian actress of film, television and theatre. Regarded among the finest stage and film actresses of her times, Patil appeared in over 80 Hindi and Marathi films in a career that spanned just over a decade. During her career, she received two National Film Awards and a Filmfare Award. She was the recipient of the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian honour in 1985.
Patil graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune and made her film debut with Shyam Benegal's Charandas Chor (1975). She became one of the leading actresses of parallel cinema, a New Wave movement in India cinema, though she also appeared in several mainstream movies throughout her career. Her performances were often acclaimed, and her most notable roles include Manthan (1977), Bhumika (1977), Aakrosh (1980), Chakra (1981), Chidambaram (1985) and Mirch Masala (1985).
Apart from acting, Patil was an active feminist and a member of the Women's Centre in Mumbai. She was deeply committed to the advancement of women's issues, and gave her endorsement to films which sought to explore the role of women in traditional Indian society, their sexuality, and the changes facing the middle-class woman in an urban milieu.
Patil was married to actor Raj Babbar. She died on 13 December 1986 at the age of 31 due to childbirth complications. Over ten of her films were released after her death. Her son Prateik Babbar is a film actor who made his debut in 2008.
Smita Patil was born in Pune into a Kunbi Maratha family to a Maharashtrian politician, Shivajirao Girdhar Patil and social worker mother Vidyatai Patil, from Shirpur town (Village-Bhatpure) of Khandesh province of Maharashtra State. She studied at Renuka Swaroop Memorial high school in Pune.
Her first tryst with the camera was in the early 1970s as a television newsreader on the newly transmitting Mumbai Doordarshan, the Indian government run broadcaster.
Smita Patil belongs to a generation of actresses, including Shabana Azmi and, like her, who are strongly associated with the radically political cinema of the 1970s. Her work includes films with parallel cinema directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Satyajit Ray (Sadgati, 1981), G. Aravindan (Chidambaram, 1985) and Mrinal Sen as well as forays into the more commercial Hindi film industry cinema of Mumbai. Patil was working as a TV news reader and was also an accomplished photographer when Shyam Benegal discovered her.
She was an alumna of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In 1977, she won the National Award for 'Best Actress' for her performance in the Hindi film Bhumika. In her films, Patil's character often represents an intelligent femininity that stands in relief against the conventional background of male-dominated cinema (films like Bhumika, Umbartha, and Bazaar). Smita Patil was a women's rights activist and became famous for her roles in films that portrayed women as capable and empowered.
"I remained committed to small cinema for about five years ... I refused all commercial offers. Around 1977-78, the small cinema movement started picking up and they needed names. I was unceremoniously dropped from a couple of projects. This was a very subtle thing but it affected me a lot. I told myself that here I am and I have not bothered to make money. I have turned down big, commercial offers because of my commitment to small cinema and what have I got in return? If they want names I'll make a name for myself. So I started and took whatever came my way."
In time she was accepted by commercial filmmakers and from Raj Khosla and Ramesh Sippy to B.R. Chopra, they all agreed that she was "excellent." Her fans, too, grew with her new-found stardom. Patil's glamorous roles in her more commercial films — such as Shakti and Namak Halaal — revealed the permeable boundaries between "serious" cinema and "Hindi cinema" masala in the Hindi film industry. In 1984, she served as a jury member of the Montreal World Film Festival.
Her association with artistic cinema remained strong, however. Her arguably greatest (and unfortunately final) role came when Smita re-teamed with Ketan Mehta to play the feisty and fiery Sonbai in Mirch Masala (1987). Smita won raves for playing a spirited spice-factory worker who stands up against a lecherous petty official. On the centenary of Indian cinema in April 2013, Forbes included her performance in the film on its list, "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema".
During the making of Chakra, Smita Patil used to visit the slums in Bombay. It culminated in another National Award.
When she became romantically involved with actor Raj Babbar, Patil drew severe criticism from her fans and the media, clouding her personal life and throwing her into the eye of a media storm. Raj Babbar left his wife Nadira Babbar to marry Patil.
Smita died from childbirth complications on 13 December 1986, age 31, barely two weeks after having given birth to her son, Prateik Babbar.
Nearly two decades later, one of India's greatest film directors, Mrinal Sen alleged that Smita Patil had died due to gross medical negligence.
In 2011, Rediff.com listed her as the second-greatest actress of all time, behind Nargis. According to Suresh Kohli from Deccan Herald, "Smita Patil was, perhaps, the most accomplished actress of Hindi cinema. Her oeuvre is outstanding, investing almost every portrayal with a powerhouse realistic performance."
In 2012, the Smita Patil Documentary and Short Film Festival was initiated in her honor.
On the occasion of 100 years of the Indian cinema, a postage stamp bearing her face was released by India Post to honour her on 3 May 2013.