Sridevi — the full story

Obituary | Superstar Sridevi: the woman who rewrote the game

Sridevi in 'Chaal Baaz'

Sometimes you can apprehend the intimations of a tragedy in hindsight. It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that I saw Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet: “ Na jaane kyun ek ajeeb si ghabrahat ho rahi hai   (I don’t know why I am feeling a sense of unease).” Eerily, within minutes, the shocking news of actor-producer S ridevi’s untimely demise in Dubai started pouring in online.

As shell-shocked Bollywood came to a standstill, one of the several shoots scheduled for Sunday that got cancelled was one of a song composed by Bachchan himself, for Umesh Shukla’s film  102 Not Out . It was meant to be shot with Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor, two of the many top heroes that Sridevi had consistently starred with, at the helm of her career in the Hindi film industry. Somewhere between the superstardom of the Angry Young Man and that of the globalised bouncing bunny Shah Rukh Khan, it was Sridevi who upped the ante, rewrote the stardom game, created a significant space for the heroine and lorded over Bollywood.

Hindi cinema, however, remains just a part of her larger body of work—in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films.

Breaking the mould

In a way Sridevi’s stardom in the North was about continuation of a time-honoured tradition—that can be taken back to Vyjayantimala and then to Hema Malini and Rekha—of female actors from the South being Heroine Number 1.

Yet it was also about breaking many rules, being able to get an equal footing as the hero, at times even getting the top billing and pay packet. From Jeetendra, Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Rishi Kapoor to Anil Kapoor, Salman and Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar right up to Adil Hussain, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Akshaye Khanna—Sridevi straddled several generations of heroes, effortlessly at that. She acted with both the father and the son—Dharmendra and Sunny Deol.


In the chase for stardom acting never took a backseat. “Range” is a word often used to describe the actor’s prowess. Drama, emotions, dance, comedy, even action. There was nothing she wasn’t proficient at.

She made her debut in Bollywood as a child artiste in  Julie  (1975) followed by a teenager act in a complicated love triangle  Solva Saawan  (1979). However, she first caught the popular eye with the kitschy song-n-dance routines—‘ Naino mein sapna ’, ‘ Taki o taki ’—with Jeetendra (and also several earthen pots in the former) for company in the blockbuster  Himmatwala  (1983). It set her off to act in several films with him most of which were South productions and big hits to boot. They also earned her the rather pejorative title of “thunder thighs”. One such superhit was  Tohfa  in which Jeetandra and she can be seen dancing to ‘ Gori tere ang ang mein ’, again with some pots for company, this time metal ones.


Straddling many worlds

But it was in 1983 that Sridevi was also seen with Kamalahassan in  Sadma . The remake of Tamil film  Moondram Pirai , it was the kind of romance not seen before in Hindi cinema—a lonely man falling in love with a child woman, a patient of retrograde amnesia. Forget watching the film again, even the memory of its unforgettable, moving climax can bring goosebumps.

Much later in 1991 in  Lamhe , Sridevi ventured into another radical romance where she played dual roles—of both mother and daughter—who happen to be in love the same man but at different points in time.

The parallel streams of critical and commercial hits continued. On the one hand were the insanely popular snake-woman films— Nagina  (1986),  Nigahen  (1989)—where she danced away to glory in musical setpieces like ‘ Main teri dushman ’. On the other was something like  Janbaaz  (1986) where she dared to play a drug-addict. And then went all pretty, vivacious, sensuous and demure, all at the same time; the kind of girl any mother would want to take home for a daughter-in-law, in  Chandni  (1989).

The career defining act came in  Mr India  (1987). There is much to remember her for in that film, be it the Charlie Chaplin mimicry or the erotic rain song in the chiffon sari—‘Kate nahin kat-te ye din raat’. Reams have been written about how that song is the perfect representation of all that Sridevi stood for on screen. There was the undeniable oomph factor, the obvious tickling of male fantasy yet Sridevi got a rare dignity and grace to the smouldering show, something that made her appeal universal. There was a gravitas and propriety in her bearing even in the worst of films on her CV. Combined with that was the mix of innocence and mischief in her huge, saucer eyes. No wonder, the connect with the audience then was electric. How could you not dance along to ‘ Kisi ke haath na aayegi ye ladki ’ ( Chalbaaz , 1989) and marvel at her expressiveness, spontaneity and abandon in front of the camera while still being intensely private and introverted in real life.

Mehdi Nebbou, who played her French admirer in  English Vinglish  (2012) famously described her eyes as “two drops of coffee in a cloud of milk.” In her comeback film she brought alive, with warmth and gentleness, the vulnerability, dilemmas and hurt of a wife and mother who is taken for granted and then goes on a journey of self-discovery.

Outstanding professionalism

Beyond these standout performances, at its very basic Sridevi’s career had been built on the foundation of an impeccable work ethic and professionalism. It was in the 80s that Sridevi, alongwith the South producers and directors, brought in discipline to an industry completely lacking it. Despite not knowing Hindi, she worked hard on her way to the top, ceaselessly.

The release of Jhanvi Kapoor’s  Dhadak  later this year would have marked an important moment in the history of Indian cinema. At a special screening of Ravi Udayawar’s  Mom  at the now demolished Lightbox preview theatre in Mumbai few months ago I had looked at them and wondered how they would add to the teams of mother-daughter (Hema Malini-Esha Deol, Dimple Kapadia-Twinkle Khanna) who have been active concurrently in Hindi cinema. That was not to be.

Final glimpses

The last we will see of Sridevi will be as herself in SRK’s forthcoming  Zero  directed by Aanand L. Rai. The last we saw her on screen was in  Mom  (2017). As usual her character was a picture of dignity, despite the turmoil and rage locked up within. It was her 300th film in 50th year in cinema. “The film is my tribute to her and since I cannot build a Taj Mahal for her, I am making  Mom ,” her producer husband Boney Kapoor had prophetically told  The Hindu .

Kapoor's quote is much like Bachchan's tweet, in which you can apprehend the intimations of a tragedy, in hindsight.

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Printable version | May 5, 2022 3:14:32 pm |