Sridevi — the full story

Sridevi: a picture of divine grace

Sridevi in an image from her first Tamil film in a leading role, 'Moondru Mudichu'   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Sridevi. The quality her name signifies, that of divinity, is the attribute I associate with her screen persona. Among the earliest memories I have of her include her roles in films that were not really box office successes – films like Chandramukhi and Aasmaan Se Gira.

While in the first she played the eponymous alien who loses her way and lands up on earth, in the second, she plays a goddess who helps an alien called Trishanku reach home. Just like her roles in these films, there was an otherworldliness to her persona, an ethereal nature.

To take a brief leap of imagination, I can think of Sridevi in the place of Vyjayanthimala playacting the song Aaja re Pardesi, making an appearance in brief glimpses but registering her presence in an indelible way. The viewer is left spellbound, hypnotised by the individual while maintaining an awareness of her invincibility and unattainability.

Thrust into acting at an early age, Sridevi played the child version of Hindu gods like Murugan and Krishna. There was, again, an otherworldly quality to her roles here, one that a mortal can aspire to attain but will always fail in.

Suspension of disbelief is a quality we associate with divinity. If we were to believe that beauty is truth and truth is beauty, could we attribute a rational explanation to it? There would be plenty of it required as we saw Sridevi progress prematurely, at an early age, from a child playing small roles to a teenager playing adult roles. Barely 13 when she played the role of Prasath (Rajnikanth)’s step mother in Moondru Mudichu, she brings out the angst of losing her beloved and the transformation of this angst into a sense of sweet revenge against the person who betrays his own friend. Her conversion, beginning with a dream-like trance and ending with horror and disgust, is shown in the song vasanta kala nadigalile.

Another Moondru Mudichu-like transformation happens to her character of Mayil in Pathinaaru Vayathinile. From a state of ambition to resignation of her fate, her teenaged face was able to bring about a variety of expressions as she moves from loathing the village idiot Sappani to sensing the unconditional love in his heart for her.

Her stint in the Hindi film industry in adult roles began as Bombay films regressed into their worst phase in the 80s. An appreciation of her characters in this phase would require, again, a suspension of disbelief. She didn’t speak the language and her parts were dubbed by other artistes, most notably by Rekha in Aakhiri Raasta where she starred opposite Amitabh Bachchan. After reprising her Moondram Pirai role in Sadma, where she even sang a song with Kamal Haasan, she ended up doing more than a dozen films with Jeetendra, most of them rehashes of Telugu potboilers. The saving grace in films like Tohfa, Himmatwala and Sherni was her dance numbers in songs likeNainon Mein Sapna. This phase also coincided with her on-screen rivalry with another actor from the South, Jayaprada.

After the success of Mr. India, films like Chaalbaaz and Chandni, both releasing in 1989 and in both of which Sridevi got strong author-backed roles in stories that revolved around her characters, marked the beginning of a phase that was the best for her in Hindi films.

In Chaalbaaz, the Anju-Manju duality was not much different from the Seeta-Geeta one in the earlier Ramesh Sippy film with the same story. However, Sridevi’s unique sense of humour, even while playing the subdued Anju – recall her scenes with Rajinikanth, including one where she innocuously says main madira nahin peeti in a scene with Rajinikanth – makes the film stand out.

Incidentally, Kishen Kanhaiya, based on the same story and starring Sridevi’s co-star in many films of the time Anil Kapoor, released the very next year but couldn’t overshadow Chaalbaaz. This sense of comedy even while communicating in a rather awkward manner in Hindi would become her USP even in her flop films like Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja and Gurudev.

Chandni, among the two important films she did for Yash Chopra, was a clichéd love triangle where her unique dialogue delivery – recall her singing in the title song – and grace in dancing numbers were the selling points. However, her most important characters were in Lamhe. Playing the roles of both a mature, young graduate Pallavi – who can do Rajasthani folk dance in songs like Megha re Megha and Morni baagan ma bole – who dies in an accident, and her daughter Pooja, who is madly in love with a much older man, she brought a range of expressions.

While the first half, where a much younger Virendra (Anil Kapoor) takes a liking towards her, was representative of the seasoned characters she played early in her life in her Tamil films, the second half of Lamhe – where she plays a teenager madly in love with a much-older Virendra – was indicative of the child-like charm she brought to characters like those in Mr. India and Chandni.Lamhe marked the zenith of her acting prowess and all her key attributes – comedy in dialogue delivery, maturity in melancholy, gullibility when in a state of infatuation, restraint while showing pain at the loss of a loved one – can be seen in the film.

Lamhe was followed by another mother-daughter dual role in Khuda Gawah, where she starred opposite Amitabh Bachchan. Though the story was not centered at her, the nuances she had to bring to the two roles – Benazir and Mehndi - were similar to those in Lamhe.

The 90s marked her rivalry with another diva Madhuri Dixit and though Dixit bagged the best of commercial roles, she never got to do a Lamhe or a Gumrah at the peak of her career. Sridevi’s career troughed after Lamhe, when, apart from an odd Laadla, she did not get roles doing justice to her talent. Incidentally, Laadla, a film full of sexist tropes where she plays a proud businesswoman Sheetal, had her reprising the role done by Vijay Shanti in Mannan. And more interestingly, Sridevi was not the original choice – Divya Bharati was and most of the film had already been shot with the latter when she met with an unfortunate death.

Post her marriage to Boney Kapoor, when Sridevi made a comeback through serials like Malini Iyer and films like English Vinglish, her face had undergone a complete transformation and expressions had become limited. However, what stayed with her was the sense of comedy in her acting self.

Throughout her career, especially in Hindi films, Sridevi maintained the stature of a goddess-like spirit, effusive and ethereal on screen, completely reticent off it. The sense of divinity in her persona – from the time she literally played the role of gods to the time she earned the status of a high achiever – is something I would be reminded of every time I think of her.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 6:00:11 AM |

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