An emotional Chernobyl who let every radioactive emotion reach out and scald the viewer, Smita was easily the most intense of our heroines. When she funnelled that dark, feral intensity into Bhumika or Mirch Masala, she was on par with the best in the world. When she tried the balancing act with Namak Halal, she was … tragically commonplace.
In her very first film, Nishaant (’75), Smita was pitted against Shabana Azmi. Ever since then, she was constantly compared to the senior actress. But, besides the fact that both did serious films, the two heroines had antithetical approaches to acting. Where Shabana was head, Srnita was heart. Where Shabana swore by the ‘method’ of ingenuity, Smita was swept by the madness of genius.
Sure enough though, both angled for the same roles. After Nishaant, Shabana’s mentor, Shyam Benegal cast Smita as the harijan woman in Manthan (’76) and as the complexed film actress in Bhumika (’77). Although she won major awards for her searing performances in these films, Smita, then in her early twenties, did not treat her career in a professional manner.
Born of socialist parents who preferred to educate her in a Marathi medium school and enrolled her in the social serving `Seva dal’, Smita always retained a certain idealism. She did not believe in planning, preferring to lead an eclectic life — she was a TV newsreader, she opted out of some films to complete her graduation and went on to do several regional films.
Finally, after she blazed through the highly charged role of a slumdweller in Chakra (’80), with blowtorch intensity (she later regretted the way the bathing-in-the-open sequence was exploited in the posters), Smita found herself being offered the cream of roles from both art and commercial cinema. It was thought the lighter roles Smita had bagged in coveted Amitabh films like Namak Halal (’82) would be a welcome ameliorator. But the transition was not painless. Watching her do the routine grind to a rain song, `Aaj rapat jaaye toh’ was depressing.
She suffered reverses even in the arty Arth. Though she moved Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal Hassan to congratulate her on a fine performance as the neurotic mistress rigid with cold passion, it was generally felt that Shabana, with her sympathetic role had stolen a march over Smita.
But the success of Ardh Satya, Aaj Ki Awaaz and to a lesser degree Aakhir Kyon, ensured that she became one of the three most saleable heroines of ’84 -’85. True, her fans were dismayed when she married the already wed Raj Babbar, but onscreen, all was forgiven when she dissolved into her character like sugar in hot water and ‘became’ the achingly vulnerable refugee of Mirch Masala and the social crusader of Subah. Her personal life may have been in a mess, but Smita’s performances always burned with a pure flame.
Unfortunately, the flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. Just before Smita’s tragic death (within days of giving birth to son Prateik) in 1986, her Aaj producer, Kuljit Pal remembers, “A week before she was due to deliver her baby, she called me up to say, ‘Let’s finish the dubbing. What if I am not here later?’ It was almost as if she knew …”