Smita Patil - An actress who lived through her role—and how!

Smita Patil and her cinematic genius in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982)

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

Touted as one of the finest actresses of the film industry, the two-time National Award winner and recipient of the Padma Shri, Smita Patil would have been 62 today, had she been alive.

Though she has given life to many characters (of a courtesan, wife of a peasant, working middle-class woman, so on and so forth), it wont be too wrong to say that her portrayal of the fiery yet emotionally volatile and extremely vulnerable Kavita Sanyal in Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth is the most riveting of all.

Only when an actor is completely self-assured of the depth of her craft, does she take on the dreaded role of ‘the other woman’, the home-breaker. Smita took on the challenge—and how!

In a society where extra-marital affairs are social scars and considered lowly and decadent, playing a role that would only garner public hatred must have been tough for her, more so when the role was unapologetically autobiographic in nature.

(Arth was the real life story of Mahesh Bhatt’s tumultuous affair with the schizophrenic Parveen Babi.)

Mahesh Bhatt claims: "She was always my original choice. There was never any hesitation in casting for the film the way it was originally conceived. There was a kind of electricity that was hardwired in her. It made her ideal to play that part which required a psychotic woman on the edge. The references could not be rooted from other movies, but it was from my own life. I had lived with a woman like this and Smita came close to a woman on the edge. Living a life of uncertainty, probing, but not finding answers, or enduring love. Immersed in the business of entertainment, of appearances, the dichotomy between appearance and reality, it was the defining aspect of her personality that was visible. It was there in Smita’s appearance that flaunted her achievements in the seminars attended by the who’s who. In private, she was the same woman who mined the uncertainties that many women face – that being the essence of Arth. This was what made her so right for the role."

For all the tremendous helplessness depicted by Shabana as the wronged and betrayed wife, rooting for immense public empathy, Smita’s Kavita Sanyal takes her audience to a complete roller coaster ride of complex emotions.

She is furious at the inability to possess Inder entirely (Kulbhushan Kharbanda); she is mollified the next moment with the guilt of separating him from his wife, vulnerable yet tough at the face (a disguise hiding the anxiety within). She is this moment happy and that moment in grips of fear of losing Inder to his wife. This woman, the audience loathes for being the home breaker, and also pities her for being the miserable loser.

How did she depict the anxiety, vulnerability and recklessness (a characteristic of the tormented mind) of the ‘other woman’ so impeccably on screen?  Was it possibly because she too was going through the drudgery and turmoil, that’s so much a part of being the “other woman” in her personal life?

Bhatt summarizes: “Why she became so extraordinary in Arth was because she was living that life simultaneously. She would come looking tired in the morning and sort of relive the aftershocks of private misery… then she would get into the cinematic space and exhale the essence of what was captured in those scenes. You could not leave an impact like that without being there. She was in that space.”

About Author - 

Puja has a great appetite for movies of all kinds ranging from regional, Bollywood to World Cinema. An avid reader herself, she also blogs at

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