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Sridevi’s death has robbed us of an actor who not only left an indelible impact on Indian cinema, but also created a space for future actors to strike a balance between being a superstar and not losing the actor within

In the 2012 film My Week With Marilyn, there is a scene where Michelle Williams, who plays the legendary screen diva Marilyn Monroe, is enjoying a moment of happiness where she can be herself in the company of a young production assistant, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne. The moment is shortlived and as she notices others approaching her, the actress says, “Shall I be her?” Within moments, Norma Jean Baker transforms into Marilyn Monroe and you can’t help but notice how the former dies a bit every time the latter is summoned. Besides the obvious that she might have had in common with Marilyn Monroe, unlike her, Sridevi only pretended for the camera. Those who knew her in real life or formed an image of her from the characters that she portrayed onscreen both were more than aware that there was much more to the iconic actress than what met the eye. It’s not like efforts were not made to know the person behind one of India’s greatest film personalities, but perhaps being an actor for nearly her entire life made Sridevi reticent when the camera was not rolling. Her death earlier this week at 54, following what was initially reported to be a cardiac arrest and later said to be accidental drowning in the bathtub of her hotel room in Dubai, has robbed Indian films of an actor who not only left an indelible impact on four of the most popular cinemas in the nation but also created a space for future actors to strike a fine balance between being a superstar and not losing the actor within.

Death does strange things to the memories that actors leave behind especially if it strikes when least expected. Within moments of her demise, the press began to hail Sridevi as the first female superstar of Indian cinema and while this assertion might not be completely true, it is also not entirely incorrect. One reason for such a declaration could have to do with the impact she had on Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Hindi cinema in the past four decades. When juxtaposed with the fact that nearly half of this country is under the age of 35, it’s hardly surprising then that Sridevi would be seen as the ‘first female superstar’ of India. There are others such as Kanan Bala and Devika Rani in the 1930s who could historically stake a greater claim to the title and then there are the likes of Nargis, Meena Kumari, Suchitra Sen, Jayalalithaa, and Hema Malini whose popularity made them even bigger stars. But the manner in which Sridevi carved a niche for herself in an era where the narrative of Indian cinema was male-dominated in more ways than imaginable, is what made her exceptional.

Like Kanan Bala, Sridevi, too, began her career as a child artiste at the age of four in Tamil films and went to become one of the most popular young actors. Her appearance in the Malayalam film Poompatta (1971) fetched her the Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Artist of the year, and although the next year, baby Sridevi featured in her first Hindi film, Rani Mera Naam (1972), it was the sleeper hit Julie (1975) where she left a mark on the minds of the Hindi audiences. Even today, it’s a young Sridevi, who played the younger sister of the lead, Lakshmi, and Rajesh Roshan’s songs that come to mind the moment Julie is mentioned.

Popular child artistes seldom manage to make a successful transition into adult roles, and even if Sridevi faced any difficulties, they were hardly noticed once she featured in K Balachander’s seminal Moondru Mudichu (1976), which besides being her first leading role, also happened to feature two of the biggest up-and-coming male stars, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Based on a story by K Viswanath, Moondru Mudichu offered all three actors author-backed parts to display their histrionics and also managed to give them a platform to sow the seeds of their own individual style of interpreting characters. For Sridevi, the role of Selvi, beginning with being the object of desire of two men Prasath (Rajinikanth) and Balaji (Kamal Haasan) and going on to marry Prasath’s father to use her new mother-son relationship to exact revenge on his treatment of Balaji, gave her enough variation to lay to rest the memories of her stint as a child artiste.

In the years that followed, Sridevi featured in many memorable films such as Gayathri (1977), Kavikkuyil (1977), and 16 Vayathinile (1977), that also became her Hindi debut when it was remade as Solva Sawan (1979). She was also a constant co-star of both Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan in films that shaped the course of their careers. Her performance as Kokila, a housewife whose husband falls in love with a filmstar in Meendum Kokila (1982), is still considered by many critics and film commentators to be one of the best onscreen portrayals of a Brahmin woman, and got Sridevi her first ever Filmfare Award for Best Actress. The film was a box office hit and would have been hailed a greater classic had the original choice to play the film star Kamini not walked out; the film was supposed to be the Tamil debut of Rekha and she had even shot for a few days, but due to reasons best known to her, she left the project.

A year later, when Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai (1982) released to great critical acclaim and commercial success, it also became one of the first few films to forever cement the cinematic legacy of its leads Sridevi and Kamal Haasan. In Moondram Pirai, a schoolteacher R Srinivas (Haasan) rescues Bhagyalakshmi (Sridevi), who is suffering from retrograde amnesia, from a brothel, and the film follows the two as Bhagyalakshmi recovers her memory with Srinivas’ help. A great modern tragedy, Moondram Pirai is nothing less than a master class in the art of filmmaking and features fine performances from both the leads that continues to be the yardstick by which most actors are measured for acting prowess.

In a Facebook post following Sridevi’s death, many people shared stories about the actress and one of them, Anil Atluri, recalled how her father, Ayyapan, found Moondram Pirai to be a milestone. Atluri’s family used to run the famous Rani Book Center, one of then Madras’ famous landmarks, and he often saw Sridevi stop by in the late 1970s to see if her father had come by and during one such visit Ayyapan garu urged the then young Atluri to watch Moondram Pirai, which he considered to be his daughter’s best work.

By the time Sadma (1983), the Hindi version of Moondram Pirai released, Sridevi had already been labeled as the next big thing in Hindi cinema, thanks to Himmatwala (1983).

A remake of the Telugu blockbuster, Ooruki Monagadu (1981), Himmatwala set the Jeetendra juggernaut in motion where the star went on to feature in formulaic South remakes that came to be seen as a genre unto itself.

Sridevi would act in 17 more films with Jeetendra in a span of the next five years and a become an integral part of the remake assembly line set-up, but unlike the others in the talent pool such as Kader Khan, Asrani, and even Jeetendra and Jaya Prada, the other Southern actress who crossed over in the 1980s, transcended to the next league by the time the formula became jaded. In fact, two happy casting accidents played a significant part in the trajectory of Sridevi’s career. The first was her reprising her Moondram Pirai role in its Hindi remake, Sadma. Right at the onset, Mahendra had wanted Dimple Kapadia instead of Sridevi for the Hindi version, but Kapadia had already committed to Ramesh Sippy for Saagar (1985).

When the audiences saw Sridevi in two polar opposite films like Sadma and Himmatwala in the span of a few months, they couldn’t believe the effortlessness with which the actress could shift gears. It was around this time that popular Hindi films had been undergoing a kind of metamorphosis, and by 1984, with the news of Amitabh Bachchan hinting at joining active politics, the race for the next male superstar was beginning to heat up. As the industry was primarily male dominated, the new female numero uno would, in the manner of speaking, be someone who could form a great pair of the contenders.

One of the names in the running was of Kamal Haasan and this perhaps made Sridevi an automatic choice. Coupled with younger stars, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Sanjay Dutt, and Sunny Deol, being looked at as the ones who could ‘replace’ Bachchan, and the previous generation of heroines (Hema Malini, Rekha, Zeenat Aman) being eased out, made Sridevi’s case stronger, thanks to her hits opposite Jeetendra, who became the darling of the trade, and Bachchan himself in Inquilaab (1984).

But it was the second casting coincidence that saw Sridevi become a superstar unlike any other before or after her and forever change the calculation when it came to her. Had it not been for Jaya Prada’s phobia of snakes, the history of popular Hindi cinema might have been written differently. The actress refused the role of the ichhadhari nagin in Nagina (1986), as she couldn’t imagine being in a scene that would have required her to share space with a few snakes, and her loss became Sridevi’s gain and also the second biggest hit of the year. Nagina’s screenplay was filled with tropes that give Hindi cinema a major chunk of its uniqueness as well as its bad name, but deep within its routineness was also a film that was essentially women-centric, without taking away from the format of the commercial Hindi cinema. The film’s success became Sridevi’s own, as the ‘hero’ Rishi Kapoor — for all intent and purposes — was a mere prop. Her scenes with Amrish Puri, in one of his earliest great villainous roles, are the stuff of Hindi film legend and the climax song, Main teri dushman, laid the foundation of yet another Sridevi tradition of standout choreographed numbers. The success of Nagina changed the way Sridevi was looked at and hits like Karma (1986), Aakhree Raasta (1986), and Jaanbaaz (1986), which also featured the memorable song Har kisi ko nahin milta, left little doubt about her stature.

The more successful Sridevi became, the clearer it got that new parameters would be needed to gauge her, as neither were the traditional standards capable of giving her roles nor were they sufficient to do justice to her aura. The more Sridevi rose, the rarer it became for well-written parts to come along, and despite that, she stood out in much of the nonsense that came her way and also commanded not just more respect but also more money than most of her leading men. During the making of Mr. India (1987), Sridevi was the bigger star but the success of the film saw Anil Kapoor being hailed as the new king of Hindi cinema for whom parts would now be written. The tragedy is the manner in which a Kamal Haasan would get something like a Nayakan (1987), whose success would adorn the tag of god on him, but despite having similar, if not better, roles in the films they did together, Sridevi would have to make do with sobriquets such as “thunder thighs”.

To get an idea of just how popular Sridevi had become vis-à-vis the so-called superstars who happened to be men, one needs to look at lesser recalled films such as Guru (1989) where the two-heroine Tamil film that it was based on, Kaakki Sattai (1985), was rewritten in Hindi with a double role for Sridevi opposite Mithun Chakraborty. Even in forgettable films such as Gair Kanooni (1989) that was directed by Prayag Raj, her role had more variation and better lines than Govinda and Rajinikanth. A Chaalbaaz (1989), that was her Ram Aur Shyam or Seeta Aur Geeta-esque double role, that announced the true arrival of a star or a Chandni (1989), the Yash Chopra woman-in-white romance that is but the gold bar for a leading lady in Hindi films, were rare to come by but continue to remain etched in the audiences’ memory even after three decades. With Chandni, Sridevi also began to dub her own voice instead of Baby Naaz, who had come to be known as the “voice of Sridevi” and now there were only a handful of roles that Hindi cinema could offer that would match her eminence. During the making of Chandni, Yash Chopra narrated a brief outline that eventually became Lamhe (1991), a film that remains synonymous with both the filmmaker as well as the actress. The film’s rather bold theme — a woman (Sridevi) falls in love with her benefactor (Anil Kapoor), who happened to be in love with her own mother (Sridevi, in a double role) — failed to strike a chord with the audiences at the time of its release, but has garnered a cult following ever since.

It was during the London schedule of the film that Sridevi got to know about her father’s death and the consummate professional not only returned from India as soon as she could after the last rites, but also did a comic scene the moment she came back.

Popular Hindi cinema has been unfair to women in terms of acting parts as well as off-screen treatment. Even Sridevi, who dominated the industry, couldn’t inspire filmmakers to write parts within the existing template that could do justice to women. At times when she refused films with some of the male stars as they didn’t have anything substantial for her, the parts were revisited and rejigged such as Khuda Gawah (1992) to become worthy of her presence. The 1990s also saw the ‘next’ generation of male stars arrive and once again Bollywood showed the door to leading ladies who belonged to the previous era. Interestingly enough, Sridevi featured opposite two of the new stars  — Salman Khan in Chandramukhi (1993), Chand Ka Tukda (1994), and Shah Rukh Khan in Army (1996) — but despite decent screen chemistry, the films didn’t do well. Intriguingly, she also replaced Divya Bharti, one of the brightest younger talents, upon her death, in Laadla (1994) and the film became one of her later hits. At the onset of the 1990s, the surge in Madhuri Dixit’s popularity and the dip in Sridevi’s happened almost simultaneously. Dixit had huge hits such as Dil (1990), Saajan (1991), Beta (1992), Khalnayak (1993), Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1995) or Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), and the only Sridevi films that one can recall from this period are Lamhe (1991), Khuda Gawah (1992) and Laadla (1994), but there were very few peaks left for Sridevi to conquer. After all, how many heroines could reduce male co-stars to supporting actors (Khuda Gawah, Chalbaaz) or inspire filmmakers like Yash Chopra to come up with a role like in Lamhe?

There was more to Sridevi than being called ‘thunder thighs’ or being asked about her rumoured marriage to Mithun Chakraborty in the late 1980s, which unfortunately became the focus of the press. Instead of asking why a Kamal Haasan or Amitabh Bachchan could get away with just about anything on-screen and not a Sridevi, or talking about the lack of good roles for women instead of the details of the dance numbers the heroine was expected to perform, the discourse surrounding popular films was dumbed down to a point of no return.

Sridevi’s last hurrah before she took a 15-year sabbatical to spend time with her children with Boney Kapoor, Judaai (1997) was a throwback to the masala Hindi films of the 1980s. It was also a testimony to how there was nothing that she couldn’t do. The film showed Sridevi ‘selling’ her husband played by Anil Kapoor to a rich woman portrayed by Urmila Matondkar in order to fulfill her materialistic pleasures.

In a post-Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and Dil To Pagal Hai globalised Bollywood, such a story would have fallen flat, but that was far from what happened.

Just when things were getting better and Sridevi gave a slight peek into what she could become in her second innings, destiny robbed us of one of our greatest artistes ever. Even if Sridevi did not make a ‘comeback’, her legacy as a complete actor and a superstar was intact, but English Vinglish (2012) and later Mom (2017) showed what we were missing. Now, we will never see that again.

Chintamani is a film historian and author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna and Pink: The Inside Story




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