Smita was the daughter of a Maharashtrian politician Shivajirao Patil & social worker mother, from Shirpur town (Village-Bhatpure) of Khandesh province of Maharashtra State. She studied at a Marathi-language school. Her first tryst with the camera was as a television newscaster for Doordarshan Pune, the Indian government controlled television, which was the only channel on the airwaves during those days.
Smita Patil belongs to a generation of actresses, including Suhasini Mulay and Shabana Azmi and, like them, is strongly associated with the radically political cinema of the 1970s. Her work includes films with parallel cinema directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani 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.
Smita Patil as aged Usha in Bhumika.
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 also 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 newfound 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.
Smita Patil as Sonbai in Mirch Masala, her last film role.
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.
When Patil became romantically involved with the 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.
Overnight, Patil was labeled a "home-breaker" by the very Feminist organizations she had worked so assiduously for, and became the target of barbed criticism. Feminists could not understand this radical divide between her expressed ideology, & her conduct in her personal life - probably never having read VS Naipaul's scathing critique of the Indian Mentality in his book, An Area of Darkness. In later years, the Indian media showing the very same psychological mechanisms at work, has begun to air-brush history & this pernicious tendency of a glaring disconnect at the heart of the ideologically-committed Indian who blithely behaves in a contrarian manner, as in the following from The Hindu: "It was a nightmare for both Smita and Raj and looking back it was ultimately her dignified silence and restraint that becalmed those troubled times. Ushering in hope for a promising, new future -- but that was not to be."
Smita died from childbirth complications on 13 December 1986, aged 31, barely 6 hours after having given birth to her son, Prateek 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.