The late Smita Patil (b 17 Oct 1955 d 13 Dec 1986) was one of the leading exponents of the art film movement which ruled Hindi cinema in the seventies and the eighties. Along with fellow actors like Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Amrish Puri, she was one of the main protagonists of this parallel cinema movement with directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Ketan Mehta, Saeed Mirza and others. Smita was not only one of the bright stars of parallel cinema, but she also managed to make a fairly easy transition to mainstream Hindi cinema and was quite a success there as well. The secret to her success lay in her tremendous screen presence, poise and phenomenal talent, the likes of which haven't been seen as yet by Hindi cinema. It is indeed tragic that her life was cut short at age 31, just when she was peaking as an actress.
If Benegal's 'Bhumika' was the movie which really catapulted her to fame, then she continued to reaffirm her superiority with films that followed, like 'Manthan', 'Aakrosh', 'Chakra', 'Mandi', 'Bazaar', 'Arth', 'Shakti 'and 'Sadgati' in Hindi; 'Aakaler Sandhaney' and 'Debshishu' in Bengali, 'Umbartha' and 'Jait Re Jait' in Marathi; 'Chidamabaram' in Malayalam; 'Anugraham' in Telugu and 'Anveshane' in Kannada. She managed to cross the language barrier and was equally at ease in Hindi, Marathi or Bengali. During her lifetime, she won the National Award for 'Best Actress' for 'Bhumika' (1978) and the National and Filmfare for 'Best Actress' for 'Chakra' in 1981, and the Padma Shri in 1985.
Besides, she was the first Asian actress to be honoured with a retrospective of her films at the 'Cinemathetique Francaise' and 'La Rochelle' in France, and she was handpicked by no less than Costa Govras, the celebrated film maker of France.
However, these awards do not really tell the full story as Smita was outstanding in movies like Mahesh Bhatt's 'Arth', where she played the other woman and was pitted against arch rival Shabana, or Benegal's 'Mandi', again opposite Shabana, Jabbar Patel's 'Umbartha' or 'Subah' as it was called in Hindi, Ramesh Sippy's 'Shakti', where she was pitted against the best in the business, Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, Sagar Sarhadi's 'Bazaar', Satyajit Ray's 'Sadgati 'and Ketan Mehta's 'Bhavni Bhavai' and 'Mirch Masala.'
She also managed to do a pretty good job in out and out masala movies like 'Namak Halal', 'Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki', 'Aaj Ki Awaz', 'Jawaab' etc. In her 15 year long tryst with films she acted opposite most of the leading actors of her time, like Bachchan, Naseer, Om, Amol Palekar, Raj Babbar, Mithun Chakraborty, Farooq Shaikh, Rajesh Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha and Rakesh Roshan.
'Mirch Masala' was Smita's second film with Mehta, the first being 'Bhavni Bhavai' which was made in Gujarati and then dubbed in Hindi. The role of Sonbai, the lead protagonist was one which was quite close to Smita's heart and beliefs. A feminist, she was committed to woman's issues and often chose to do films which explored the role of women in traditional and urban societies, their sexuality and the challenges facing them in the modern milieu. The role of Sonbai, the feisty spice factory worker of' Mirch Masala', who stands up against a lecherous 'subedaar', was one such role which was so close to her beliefs. What makes this performance poignant is the fact that this was one of her last great performances, as she died soon after.
The film is set in a nameless village in Rajasthan, during the time of the British. An arrogant 'subedar' or tax collector (Naseeruddin Shah) is doing the rounds of the village. The subedar loves the good things of life and has a roving eye for women. He is captivated by Sonbai, a village woman, whose husband (Raj Babbar) has left for town in search of a job. What intrigues the 'subedaar' first about Sonbai is her confident and independent spirit. When he encounters her near the river, she does not run away in fright like the other village women but stays put and even has the audacity to admonish him. Totally smitted by her, the subedaar makes her an indecent offer which is met by a stinging slap from Sonbai. She flees from his clutches and rushes into an enclosed factory compound of red chillies. The elderly gatekeeper of the factory, Abu Mian (Om Puri), shuts the factory doors and refuses to let the 'subedaar's men inside.
Sonabi's audacity and Abu's refusal to open the door, triggers of a mini crisis in the village, as the villagers, most of who are illiterate, are at the mercy of the subedar as they have to pay him a hefty tax out of their meagre earnings. To top it, the 'subedaar' and his men routinely loot and plunder the village for food and supplies. So when the 'subedar' orders the village head or mukhiya (Suresh Oberoi) to get him Sonbai or face destruction, the 'mukhiya' is naturally scared. He and the rest of the villagers decide to agree to the request on the condition that the 'subedaar' will leave the rest of the women alone and not molest them. However, the 'subedaar' refuses to listen to any conditions.
Meanwhile, Abu Mian continues to defy the soldiers, who first threaten him, then try to trick him into doing so. When all fails, they get the factory owner to reason with him, but that yields no results. The villagers are now quick to condemn Sonbai and the 'mukhiya' orders to give herself up to the subedar. The only man who stands against this decision is the village schoolmaster (Benjamin Gilani), a Gandhian, who is thrashed by the villagers for daring to speak up. Back home, the 'mukhiya's wife (Deepti Naval) too is a Gandhian and believes in the education of women and dares to speak up to her husband against the prevailing male attitude towards women in the village.
Meanwhile the women inside the factory, who were first supporting Sonbai, now turn against her as they fear for their life and honour.The 'subedaar' now orders his men to charge into the factory, which they do quite successfully. They break down the door and gun down Abu Mian. The 'subedaar' now comes face to face with Sonbai and tries to grab her, which is when the factory women come to her rescue in the most dramatic and telling manner. They attack the 'subedaar' with chilli powder and he comes down on his knees writhing with pain. It is a visual which stays in one's mind long after the movie is over.
'Mirch Masala' carries that fervour and rebellious spirit which was so typical of its times and also so typical of its director, Mehta, whose earlier two films, 'Holi 'and 'Bhavni Bhavai,' too had the same underlying theme of rebelling against the established order. In 'Mirch Masala', Sonbai, Abu Mian, the village schoolmaster and the 'mukhiya's wife, each rebel in their own way to subvert the existing order. The original story, on which the movie is based, was written by Chunnilal Madia which was adapted into a screenplay by Mehta and Shafi Hakim.
The entire drama is brought alive brilliantly by the cast of actors, each of who has pitched in with an impeccable performance. Leading from the front is Smita, who is absolutely terrific as the feisty Sonbai, a proud and independent woman, who refuses to cow down or submit to any male or man made establishment. She exercises her will and takes great pride in doing so. Smita manages to bring out the vulnerability and the strength of the character wonderfully and emerges as a true hero in the end. She is wonderfully supported by Naseer as the villainous 'subedaar'.
The actor is a sheer delight to watch as the arrogant and leacherous 'subedaar'. The manner in which he adds colour to the character is amazing. These two are very ably supported by Deepti Naval as the quiet wife of the 'mukhiya' who sparks of a rebellion. Benjamin Gilani is passable and so is Om Puri as the watchman. But the ones hwo stand out include the female characters like Dina Pathak (Maanki) and her daughters Ratna and Supriya, who are superb as the women trapped inside the factory along with Sonbai.
Mehta's film stands out for its authenticity and its rich colour palette. The final scene where the subedar is brought to his knees as the fiery red chilli powder is chucked on his face is the ultimate sign of rebellion. The quiet power of women, which when unleashed can take the potent form of fiery red chilli powder, is brought out brilliantly by Mehta and his cast of characters. He builds up the momentum perfectly as the women in the factory oscillate from one emotion to the other, before forming up for an attack.
It was really one of the most powerful performances by Smita and it is unfortunate that it was her last great performance as she died soon after due to complications in child birth. She was an actress who had many more Sonbais and myriad other characters trapped inside, just waiting to manifest themselves. Unfortunately, their stories will remain unheard and untold till the end, for Smita is no more. It will take quite a while before Hindi cinema sees another one like her. Taking her legacy forward, Smita's son, Prateik has taken his baby steps in films. He has a long distance to travel before he can be talked of in the same breath as his mother. May her soul rest in peace.