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Remembering Sridevi: Out of the strobe lights

Sridevi — A star is gone.

Sridevi — A star is gone.  

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Sridevi and Nutan both died at 54. And their careers were as similar as their lives divergent

For many of us, Sridevi was our own hush-hush icon, whose uproarious screen avatar lived with us like an imaginary friend. That she has left us suddenly is unfathomable, because everything that created our perception of her — films, interviews, movie memorabilia, Instagram posts (of late) — are still where she left them and will survive into digital posterity. The dimming of a star is still visible to the eye although it is light years away.

My private mourning the last few days took me back to the passing of another favourite star, which was the first time the demise of a public figure made me confront the mortality of the immortals: the passing of the legendary Nutan in 1991. Like Sridevi, she too was 54, and died in the same week of February. The media circus surrounding the superstar’s death was absent in those pre-cable days, and all I remember is the deadpan (how refreshing that would be today) Doordarshan coverage of Nutan’s funeral, cotton buds in her nose and footage of a contemplative Tanuja (her sister, thought to have been estranged) standing quietly. The sense of loss and longing, although more intimate in those days than collective, was essentially the same.

Striking parallels

Quite apart from the timing of their death, there are striking parallels between the lives of Nutan and Sridevi. Their career trajectories and personalities were of course a study in contrasts: Sridevi was the high priestess of commercial cinema and supremely talented, while Nutan was always an actor par excellence with box-office bona fides; one was shy and unassuming to the point of being almost unrecognisable off screen, the other an outspoken firebrand; starting off at the age of four, Sridevi had a head-start but Nutan’s final innings was much more prolific (in part due to Sridevi’s self-imposed 15-year hiatus).

The 80s saw them run parallel fiefdoms. They were both powerhouse performers, enduring leading ladies in an industry, where women have notoriously short shelf-lives. They were never merely love interests or ‘item’ specialists but actors who garnered author-backed roles till the very end.

Unlike her contemporaries who had long hung up their boots, Nutan hit her forties running, with a slew of releases in which she had top billing: Saajan Bina Suhagan, Kasturi and Mayuri, which was the last of the title characters. She played strong supporting roles in Naam and Meri Jung. She won a Filmfare Award (her sixth) for ‘supporting actress’ in Meri Jung, and the award was rechristened the Outstanding Performance award at the ceremony. At the time of her death, the streets of Mumbai were still plastered with posters from Aulad Ki Khatir, prominently featuring her in her now de rigueur widow’s garb, holding a baby in her hand.

In many of her final films, Nutan was clad in austere white. This was a strange testament to her longevity in the industry, because here was a woman who appeared to constantly outlive her husbands. Melodrama came easily to her, although she tried to temper each clichéd part with the gravitas of an authentically tortured soul. Kasturi and Mayuri even saw her return to singing after a two-decade gap.

Nothing promising

On her comeback, Sridevi chose well — both English Vinglish and Mom were tailor-made to showcase her effervescent acting skills and worked well at the box office too. Her home-bound hiatus after her marriage was in part because of the dearth of roles for older female actors in an industry that albeit pays such extensive lip-service to their ‘living legend’ status. This pedestal then ironically becomes a site of confinement.

Like her male contemporaries, who played college-boys into their fifties, Nutan’s late oeuvre did consist of some parts where she played characters who were half her age somewhat gracelessly. The phrase ‘maturing like good wine’ followed her everywhere she went. Similarly, Sridevi’s fixation with eternal beauty has been widely spoken of, and cruelly dissected.

Ultimately it was behind the cameras that their true qualities distilled into a ‘forever’ aura that kept their fans spellbound.

Vikram Phukan sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him, even as a child. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 7:04:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/out-of-the-strobe-lights/article22917587.ece

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