by Deepa Deosthalee
I can’t put a finger on exactly when I fell in love with her. I must have been 10, or thereabouts. Memories only come back as random scraps, the kind I once gathered on the pages of a diary from a year gone by. Painstakingly, relentlessly, lovingly. The dates had lost their relevance, but that thick book — it’s ugly brown cover adorned with the logo of a tin manufacturing company — was the sole repository of my obsession.
An unremarkable poster procured from a street vendor outside my school was stuck on the door of my room. Unremarkable, because she wasn’t my Smita in the strictest sense. A pink (or was it off-white?) silk blouse, matching jacket, frozen in mid-shot, her face caked with more make-up than it ever needed; a touch of awkwardness to the body language, the smile stiff and unyielding. Only the big black eyes gave her away. Her unwavering gaze was fixed on me every time I walked into the room. I’d sit at my table plodding through my math homework and look at it through the corner of my eye to make sure she was still around. I’d carve her initials on my desk or scribble them on school notebooks and get my ears boxed for it.
Clippings from the raddiwala
It wasn’t easy going to the movies those days. Not because there weren’t any cinemas in town — I lived in Bombay, for God’s sake — but because parents like mine didn’t believe girls of impressionable minds should indulge in such frivolous activities. That didn’t dent my enthusiasm though, because there was always a steady supply of benevolent uncles, aunts and older cousins who obliged.
So we went one time to see this film in which she was dancing in the rain in a white saree with a red border, the hero thrusting himself on her in a manner only Hindi film heroes do to express love. I didn’t understand much about these things back then. It was a blissful innocence, watching my favourite stars dancing together to a foot-tapping number in a darkened hall. And the memory of the song which stayed with me for months on end — with very little television on offer and film outings few and far between, it was my imagination that scripted most daydreams.
And magazines helped flesh them out. They could to be purchased from the raddiwala at throwaway prices. Buying fresh copies was out of the question —the concept of pocket money was unheard of, at least in resolutely middle-class households like ours (yes, this was that long ago). Hours had to be spent at the corner shop browsing through magazines looking for her interviews and photographs, even small ones on the snippets pages. She wasn’t the kind of glamorous star who made it to the cover page on a regular basis — she probably danced in the rain with that superstar just to change that!
But they held retrospectives of her films in foreign lands. France, I think it was. It got written about in a Gujarati magazine, accompanied by colour photographs — what a treat! Some time was spent cajoling a friend to read and describe the details of Smita’s Parisian sojourn in great detail; the only recollection now, that she had an opportunity to sample good wine. Years later, I got my hands on a French poster of one of her celebrated films, and it still hangs on the wall of my study.
In my head, she had a life of her own — a fulfilling one. A beautiful apartment overlooking the sea, tastefully done up with little furniture and lots of love. Later in a magazine interview, there was a huge photo-spread shot in her house, she and her lover proudly posing in co-ordinated yellows and whites, she beaming in the flush of pregnancy, leaning against her man, framed on the threshold of, what I imagined, must have been her drawing room. A black & white picture in another magazine, possibly a still from a film, with a caption, ‘My rock of Gibraltar’. Then, a few months later, another one of the same man sitting disheveled under a tree. Must have been taken just after the funeral… And many dreadful stories thereafter of what may have been and what should have been.
The two Smitas
One time, I dragged my grandmother (who rarely, if ever, watched a film) to one of Smita’s family melodrama-type adventures. She played a neglected homemaker whose philandering husband disowns her for her more glamorous cousin. Too much make-up and an uncharacteristically histrionic acting style apart, it was hugely cathartic for a girl firmly fed stories of virtue and redemption to watch her claw her way back. She gets successful, her ex-husband goes bankrupt and down on his knees begging her for forgiveness, while her friend and bulwark of several years finally marries her — the crowning glory of any Indian woman’s life! Even if the actor who plays the man is twice her age. Smita did a bunch of these corny films dressed in bright-coloured sarees; red lipstick, a big round red bindi on her forehead and the mandatory sindoor and thick long mangalsutra to signify her matrimonial purity. Usually the wronged woman, she suffers and gets humiliated repeatedly before being rescued from her miserable fate.
And then I remember the smouldering, kohled eyes of the same woman on posters of those other films — the kind where she doesn’t mope or get pushed around. She battles valiantly on different fronts — to uphold her dignity, to find her purpose in life, to take on the male establishment, to break barriers of caste and class, or to merely survive — a true trailblazer. And suddenly, she seemed so much more sure-footed in dusty sarees and weatherworn chappals against defiantly unromantic backdrops — slums, villages, mountains, whorehouses and busy city streets — hardly a spot of make-up on, a picture of undiluted intensity and rare intuition.
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