I have to admit that even though I have barely known Sridevi as an acquaintance, friend or even as a super-fan (in comparison to some others) my reaction to the news of her death on Sunday came from a personal place. At 54, she was close to my mother’s age and all I could think of was how crushing the incident must have been for her family. But relatability was not at the root of my grief because Sridevi was not just another tragic story–she was Bollywood’s most endearing diva with a legendary legacy like no other.
As heartbreaking as her death has been, however, Indian media’s descent into a cacophony of vacuous, insensitive conspiracy theories around her death, pills and cosmetic surgeries have made things even harder. Churning the details of her life into a disconcertingly sensational narrative has felt like many more daggers in the heart. It’s part of the reason why I felt the need to process the shock of her death in a more personal way. One that might provide solace to others, like me, who were grieving Indian cinema’s loss of one of its most versatile heroines. So away from the noise, let’s delve deeper into what cemented Sridevi’s eternal charm on the silver screen.
Queen Of Comedy
In a career spanning 300 films over five decades Sridevi entered the film industry as a child artist, created her name for herself in the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada movie industries before she took Bollywood by storm. When her first Hindi film, P. Bharathiraja’s Solva Sawan (1979) released, little did Bollywood know that it would soon see its first heroine-comedienne. Along with a dazzling yet vulnerable sort of beauty Sridevi unlike any of her predecessors or contemporaries was the Queen of comic timing. Moreover there wasn’t only one kind of funny the diva could play. She had the audience in splits with her laugh-out loud acts in Chaalbaaz (1989), the remake of Hema Malini’s Seeta Aur Geeta, as the street-smart dancer (while simultaneously pulling off the role of the simpleton twin sister). In her most iconic film Mr. India (1987), the story of India’s first superhero, it’s impossible not to break into big smiles when she appears on screen as the feisty reporter Seema. While the delightful comic relief she brings to Sadma (1983) as a patient of retrograde amnesia whose mental ability has become that of a child, is as entertaining as it is sensitive.
In the mainstream Indian entertainment industry of the ‘70s and ‘80s where gender norms were even more rigid than they are today, actresses usually thrived on glamour and at best tragic appeal. Sridevi burst into the scene with a combination of her infectious laughter, quirky mannerisms, facial contortions and occasional slapstick style of comedy. She let everyone know around her loud and clear–girls could be funny and really good at it too.
My sisters and I would guard the T.V. remote from others in the family if we knew a Sridevi movie would be playing soon because we just had to watch the woman who had left the bandwagon of pretty and polite femininity to carve her won space in the movies. It didn’t matter what the role was. Without the slightest element of being forced, Sridevi’s brand of comic has been repeatedly used as a source of inspiration but never been quite re-created. I can quickly spot the actresses of my adulthood seek inspiration from the favourite actress of my childhood. Think of the wide-eyed candid and vulnerable looks of Kajol in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001), Rani Mukherjee in Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008) and recently even in Vidhya Balan’s Tumhari Sullu (2017). They all made Sridevi their muse in one way or another.
As much as Sridevi’s comic style was her signature, so was her dance. You couldn’t copy it even if you tried (believe me I did, several times)–her movements were a mix of Helen’s sex appeal and Waheeda Rehman’s virginal aura. She showed electric vigour in songs like Main Teri Dushman, Dushman Tu Mera as the shape-shifting woman form Nagina (1986) while exuding grace in Rajasthani folk number Chudiyan Khanak Gayeen from cult film Lamhe (1991). Like in her acting, when she danced, she could showcase a multitude of personas. Though her most iconic song Hawa Hawai has been repeatedly remixed, nobody has able to recreate Sridevi’s original cabaret avatar. In Mere Haathon Mein from her film Chandni (1989) her dance embodies the feisty character that Madhuri Dixit would go on to draw from years later in Joote De Do, Paise Le Lo from Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994). While in the music sequence Har Kisi Ko Nahi Milta from Jaanbaz (1986) she transforms into the seductive singer clad in a red sari.
Queen Of Comebacks, Too
Just when you thought there was nothing else that Sridevi could possibly mesmerise her audience with, she returned to the screen with English Vinglish (2012), her come-back film after a fifteen year hiatus. Playing a housewife who takes up English lessons to stand up to her family, Sridevi proved that she could step out from under the shadow of mainstream production houses as well as her stylistic comedy comforts to give a powerful and nuanced performance. Even in her films that tanked at the box-office like Lamhe (1991) and her last film Mom (2017), Sridevi never failed to impress with her effortless charm and cultivated craft. A bankable heroine, she was in every sense of the word, India’s first female superstar.
Despite her popularity amongst the Indian masses though, she never vocalised her success or for that matter, her griefs, to the public. A 2012 Mint Lounge article, written before the release of English Vinglish, cited a 1987 Stardust story about the actress’s unhappy life off screen as a result of under confidence, excessive parental control, and an acute sense of loneliness.
The truth of these claims now seem unimportant to fans in the void of her complete absence. For when the camera rolled, she was to me and all her fans best described in the lyrics of one of her songs (which now seem bitter sweet) - “Main khwabo ki shehzadi, mai hu har dil pe chhayee...(I am the Empress of dreams that has cast herself on every heart.)
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