BACK in 1979, when Sridevi marked her entry into Hindi cinema as the female lead in Solva Sawan (a remake of the path-breaking 16 Vayadhinile in Tamil) opposite Amol Palekar, no one thought she had a ghost of a chance in Bollywood. Hers was far from the dream girl image of Hindi film audiences, who liked their heroines to be “fair and beautiful”. Solva Sawan was a flash in the pan, and Sridevi went back to south India where she had carved a niche for herself in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada cinema. But for anyone to have a truly pan-Indian popularity, Hindi cinema had to be captured. Leaving aside her nuanced performances in Tamil, Sridevi chose the rumbustious, almost ribald, Telugu cinema as her vehicle to the Hindi heartland.
Hindi movie audiences then were divided between those who watched Amitabh Bachchan films and those who did not. Sridevi catered to the latter audience. Thus came about director K. Raghavendra Rao’s Himmatwala , a 1983 remake of Ooruki Monagadu in Telugu. With songs such as “Nainon mein sapna” and “Taki o taki” in it, the film gave her more than a foothold in the industry. It gave her an identity, a tag. Thenceforth, Sridevi was the quintessential sex symbol. As Tohfa , Mawaali , Maqsad and Majaal had their voyeuristic appeal, nobody suspected Sridevi of having a Lamhe in her, which showcased her talent as a seasoned actor.
Incidentally, in all these films, fellow south Indian actor Jaya Prada was her co-star. Unlike Sridevi, Jaya Prada came as a dancing sensation in K. Viswanath’s Sargam and found immediate acceptance.
While Jaya Prada appealed to family audiences, Sridevi wooed male audiences with her charm. Such was her sex appeal that when other south Indian actors such as Rambha and Bhanupriya entered Hindi cinema in subsequent years, publicists sought to capitalise on Sridevi’s popularity with catchphrases such as “She is not Sridevi. She is Rambha.” There could only be one Sridevi.
In almost all of her early films, the heroes were much older and well past their prime, thereby ensuring that the heroine got a fair footage in them. Thus the likes of Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra starred opposite Sridevi in many Hindi films in the evening of their careers.
She often crossed the terrain from the sensual to the salacious with films such as Masterji and Inquilaab ; posters of Masterji showing a sarong-clad Sridevi were blackened at many a hall and Inquilaab ’s ribald song “Bichhu das gaya” provoked the ire of women’s organisations. Not to forget the obnoxious “Jhopdi mein charpai” song in Mawaali . Incredibly, in all the suggestive dance sequences, her face retained a beguiling innocence.
With her mischievous eyes and squeaky voice that conveyed innocence, she romanced the camera. A Sridevi movie made one live in the moment.
Realising that being a sex siren could take her only thus far, she tapped into her innate talent. Versatility was to be her calling card thenceforth. By the late 1980s, Hindi cinema had Madhuri Dixit, who danced into cinemagoers’ hearts with the “Ek, do, teen” number in N. Chandra’s Tezaab . Even as the media sought to play up an emerging rivalry, Sridevi went a notch up with Chalbaaz , a film that capitalised on her peerless talent for comedy. So good was Sridevi in the movie that she made the audience forget that they had earlier watched Seeta aur Geeta in the same template.
Later, she dared to do the unimaginable: turn down films opposite Bachchan. This was at a time when every heroine worth her following wanted to share screen space with him. A film with Big B guaranteed a box office hit. Besides Sridevi, Rati Agnihotri, Jaya Prada, Meenakshi Seshadri, Dimple Kapadia, Amrita Singh, Kimi Katkar, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil had done films with him in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, after being barely noticed in K. Bhagyaraj’s money-spinner Aakhri Rasta , a remake of the Tamil film Oru Kaidhiyin Diary , Sridevi declined to act opposite Bachchan unless she was offered a meaty role. In the hero-driven industry, it could well have been suicidal for a heroine. But it was not to be for Sridevi.
Her patience bore fruit with Mukul S. Anand’s Khuda Gawah in which she played a double role with relish. It was not a success for Sridevi alone. She had struck a blow for all heroines in the industry: it was now possible for a female star to have a powerful role in a film starring Bachchan.
Turning the tables Sridevi was now in a position to choose her male co-stars. Having begun her career opposite older men, it was her turn in the 1990s to act opposite younger guys. It was a case of turning the tables in an industry where it was the norm for a 50-year-old man to be cast opposite a 25-year-old woman or a 40-plus woman to play a bhabhi or a mother to a hero in his late forties or early fifties. By starring opposite Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and later Akshay Kumar in admittedly forgettable films such as Army , Chand ka Tukda and Meri Biwi ka Jawab Nahin , Sridevi proved not just her ability to sustain her appeal for more than a decade but also that the heroine’s name could appear on the screen before the hero’s. All that the heroines needed was conviction and an ability to deliver at the box office.
It was the same mix of conviction and risk-taking ability that led her to do Lamhe with Yash Chopra where she played the double role of a mother and daughter. Some critics panned the film for its alleged incestuous undertones. Yet, over a period of time, it acquired the status of a cult movie. In roles meant to showcase both her prowess as a romantic beauty and her ability to mould her expressions as a seasoned artiste, Sridevi was a winner. As her hero in the movie, Anil Kapoor tried gamely.
The endeavour to tap into the unknown had earlier driven Sridevi to sign up for Balu Mahendra’s Sadma, which wasalso the remake of a Tamil film, Moondram Pirai, in which her child-woman act was much appreciated. In the age of escapist cinema, however, Sadma was banished from the box office.
A couple of years later, Sridevi signed K. Viswanath’s Jaag Utha Insaan with Mithun Chakraborty in the lead role. A gently unfolding saga, the film was a searing essay on casteism and was aeons removed from the larger-than-life movies such as Kalakaar , Sarfarosh , Balidan and Akalmand that she was doing at around the same time. The film sank without a trace and there was not to be another opening for Sridevi in art-house cinema after Jaag Utha Insaan . Her association with Mithun Chakraborty, though, was to keep the grapevine busy for several years, with tabloids speculating about her secret marriage to him.
It did not help her cause that she did absolutely forgettable films such as Guru and Waqt ki Awaaz . In films such as Heer-Ranjha and Roop ki Rani,Choron ka Raja , her attempt to revive the magic of Mr. India came a cropper, but Farishtey , Gair Kanoon and Nakabandi offered her some consolation.
Half a decade after Lamhe , Sridevi gave cinemagoers Judaai . The film, despite its retrograde subject, was a box-office hit. But the writing was on the wall and Sridevi settled down to enjoy the bliss of domesticity with Boney Kapoor, to come back only 15 years later with English Vinglish . The much-lauded film proved that, if anything, Sridevi was a winner across generations. She had transcended all taglines.
Her death at the age of 54 in Dubai on February 24, shrouded in mystery as it was because of initial reports of a cardiac arrest and confirmation later of “accidental drowning”, did not take away from the reputation she had gained as a superstar. She, along with the legendary Shashi Kapoor, was featured in the “In Memoriam” section at the 90th Oscars held in early March. That she commanded a staggering 1.4 million Twitter followers vouches for her popularity.
A niche in the south It was a tortuous road to stardom for Sridevi. She did not hesitate to don stereotypical roles, that of a glamour girl of sorts. Luck was on her side when the iconic directors of her time such as K. Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra and J. Mahendran chose her for their dream projects. Despite being a celluloid dream girl, she lapped up the films of those doyens, which enhanced her image to a level no other actor of her age could ever dream of.
The vibrant generation of the late 1970s in Tamil Nadu was witness to a resurgent cinema that broke out of the black-and-white confines of studios and experimented with realism. A passionate band of directors, actors, musicians and cameramen tried out new ideas and concepts that transformed Tamil cinema, spiriting it away from family melodramas and repeats of mythological stories.
It was a brave new world of realism on the silver screen. Sridevi was one among those who were fortunate enough to work with these new-age celluloid architects. The era also provided the space actors like Sridevi were yearning for. The most creative period of hers, until her late twenties, was dedicated to Tamil cinema. Besides, she had the opportunity to work with equally young and talented actors such as Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth, who pushed her performance to sheer excellence. She was an enthusiastic collaborator and together they formed a flawless ensemble of artistes.
Her memorable performances were with the three “bhishmas” of Tamil cinema—Balachander, Balu Mahendra and Bharathiraja—and Mahendran. In Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai (The Third Day of Crescent, 1982), Sridevi was at her histrionic best, portraying the role of a seven-year-old trapped in the body of a teenager. The plot was of a girl suffering from amnesia following an accident. Sridevi knew she had to play it with utmost caution so that the thin line that separated innocent love and obscenity did not blur.
Donning the role opposite the versatile Kamal Hassan, she portrayed with ease the pranks, impulses, tantrums and anarchism of a child. The role, innocence personified, suited her well and it was billed as one of her most enduring and endearing performances. She not only matched Kamal Hassan but outperformed him on occasions. Scenes such as the one in which the girl plays with a puppy, Subramani, and the director’s subtlety and skill, placing her innocence at the heart of the plot, made the film an intense human drama with a high emotional quotient. The film was a box-office hit and its crew won critical acclaim and National and State awards.
Director’s delight All through her career she remained a director’s delight, however cliched it may sound. It was Balachander who honed her skills to perfection. His films Moondru Mudichu (Three Knots, 1976), her debut in Tamil, and Varumayin Niram Sivappu (Poverty’s Colour is Red, 1982) portrayed her as “bold and beautiful”. In fact, Balachander’s forte was the portrayal of strong and independent women in movies. In Moondru Mudichu , the veteran director cast Sridevi as an innocent middle-class girl who turns into a strong woman in tragic circumstances. The complex emotional geometry Sridevi exhibited was amazing. None would have believed that she was just 14 then, having graduated from being a child artiste.
The movie was a romantic triangle involving two men loving one woman, their passion, jealousy, hatred, death, depression and revenge. It was a complex but powerful movie in which Sridevi rendered her best, cast opposite Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth, both Balachander’s proteges. The scene of birds screeching over a murky water spread in which her lover, played by Kamal Hassan, is drowned amid her hysterical screams, and Rajnikanth displays his villainous best, remains etched in the memory of viewers.
In that power-packed single frame, Sridevi displayed myriad expressions—shock, anger, despair and despondency—about her helplessness to save her lover. To wreak vengeance, she would marry the villain’s widowed father to become his stepmother. Balachander’s plot was considered to be radical at that time and he captured the succinct transformation of an innocent teenager into the mature wife of a man who is old enough to be her father.
She matched Kamal Haasan in Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu and Rajnikanth in Johnny, both of which came out in the early 1980s. Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu was about the struggles of unemployed youths and their disillusionment. In the film, Sridevi gracefully matched Kamal Hassan’s performance. She was extraordinary in the song sequence “Sippi irukkuthu, muthu irukkuthu”. Kamal Hassan and Sridevi shared some of the best roles on screen. They acted together in nearly 30 films.
The other iconic director with whom she struck a chord was Bharathiraja. His 16 Vayadhinile , a Kamal Hassan-Sridevi-Rajnikanth starrer, employed realism using rural imagery. It was the first time that a Tamil film was shot outside the studios. Such was Sridevi’s portrayal of the character Mayil in the film that it became a household name. The film attained cult status in Tamil cinema.
Yet another blockbuster from the same director was Sigappu Rojakkal (Red Roses, 1978), a psychological thriller in which Sridevi played the wife of a psychopath, portrayed by Kamal Hassan. She did a similar role of a victimised wife in Gayathri in 1977, opposite Rajnikanth.
Johnny gave her a chance to do a distinctly different role—a mature woman in control of herself. She was Archana, a musician, but living the life of a loner. It was an elegantly pictured love drama wherein Sridevi and Rajnikanth, doing a double, matched each other with their sublime performances. The scene in which Sridevi elegantly expresses her love to the characater played by Rajnikanth had a lyrical charm to it. Her acting was more textured, nuanced and denser with exotic emotive content. A film critic claimed that the entire crew fell silent when the scene was shot at a bungalow in Ooty.
A long journey It was a long journey in the tinsel world for the Sivakasi-born actor who made her debut as a child artiste at the age of four in Thunaivan , a Tamil devotional film. In an interview she said she was spotted by the lyricist Kannadasan, who asked the film producer Chinnappa Thevar to cast her as Bala Murugan (young Murugan) in the movie. As a child artiste, she worked with M.G. Ramachandran ( Nam Naadu ), Sivaji Ganesan ( Babu ) and Jayalalithaa ( Kandan Karunai ).
Her other notable films were Priya (1978), which is the composer Ilaiyaraja’s 50th film, and Meendum Kokila (1981), in which she played a Brahmin woman. She also played a memorable role in Manitharil Ithanai Nirangala! (1978). Her last film in Tamil was Puli , a Vijay starrer.
The innocent charm of Sridevi mesmerised many people for decades. As Ruben Blades, the Latin American musician of the 1980s, wrote: “The moon rests amidst the silence.” It applies to Sridevi, too.