How I dealt with the life and death of Sridevi

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They say childhood heroes never die. You may feel estranged by the life choices of your favourite role model, but once they are actually gone, you are free to remember them as you once loved them.

Sridevi’s life and career syncs up memorably with the worldview and impressions of many a young girl. In the end, memories are all we may cling to.

Some scenes from your life are etched so clearly in your mind that you can not only reproduce every detail with great precision but also relive every sensation. One such event is from a night over 30 years ago when I was introduced to the magic of Sridevi.

It was a cold night and the entire family had huddled in front of a colour television watching back-to-back movies. The films, we were told, were ‘super hits’. I had no idea what that meant, but I had sat in front of the TV anyway. The lure of a hired TV and VCR was enough to pin a kid to her seat. There was something else that had pinned me to my seat that night — the woman on screen; the films were Nagina and Mr. India and the woman, of course, was the one and only Sridevi.

I do not know when I fell in love with Sridevi. Was it that night when she transformed from a human to a serpent to a goofy reporter and a sensuous diva all in a matter of a few hours? Or was it some years later when she fed green chillis to the hero and laughed uncontrollably at his reaction and beat up a group of goons single-handedly? It could also be when she danced like a goddess in rain, and like a punk on the streets. But somewhere along the line, I found myself totally mesmerised by Sridevi.

 

 

I had no idea what being a fan meant until then. Neither did I care. For me, Sridevi was someone whom I thoroughly enjoyed watching on screen. One minute she was a domestic goddess draped in ostentatious saris and gaudy make-up, the next minute she was a diva in flowing dresses, and the next, a virago who guzzled alcohol and kicked ass (literally). The sheer range represented a sort of freedom of being, a perfect palette for a role model to a young girl like me.

Incidentally, I shared my birthday with Sridevi, and that somehow made me feel even closer to her as a person. Not only did I try to emulate her on-screen persona, but also tried to be like her personally. In many ways I identified with her quiet and stoic personality off screen, and that might have had something to do with my inexplicable love for her.

But I was not the only one looking up to her. Every girl of my age idolised Sridevi. “I loved Sridevi for her grace and elegance. I emulated her in the way I dressed, the way I looked, and even the way I dealt with life. White became my favourite colour after Chandni. I would tell my tailor to copy all her designs for my outfits,” reminisces Pallavi Singh, a teacher in DPS whom I spoke with, who grew up watching her and looking up to her for everything from fashion to life skills.

“I am broken by her death, I had never imagined I would be so deeply affected by her death, but I am. It is as though a part of my life has died with her. So many moments, so many memories.”

 

 

But what made Sridevi so special? I have been trying to answer that question for past few days now, even as I, a grown woman, walk in a daze trying to accept that she is dead.

To me, and to the girls of my generation, Sridevi was not just a filmstar. She was a part of our lives — as real as a family member, as close as a friend, as alive as the person sitting right opposite. Having spent the most impressionable years of our lives with her movies — living her characters, copying her dances, parroting her monologues, discussing her antics — it was as though we had a real connection with her. We wanted to be like her when we danced, when we laughed, when we cried, and even when we loved.

The power Sridevi had over us was immense. We saw in her a hero when she single-handedly pinned the villain down, and yet didn’t want to kill him. She had us looking up to her in awe when she beat up the wretched foster family of her twin. Her clothes, the blue and yellow chiffons, the white salwar suits, the crazy crop tops, were discussed during tiffin breaks; her long flowing hair was talked about on the school bus, her iconic characters were emulated at playtime. She was an a woman every girl wanted to be like.

And then we grew up.

The decline of Sridevi’s career coincided with my growing up. Like all 16-/17-year-olds, we were now know-it-alls and needed no icons, not in the least a film star.

This was, incidentally also the time when her films, which, just to accommodate her stature, were doing nothing for the viewer. I remember having cringed at watching Army, Chandra Mukhi, and Chaand Kaa Tukdaa. Where was the woman I idolised? What was she doing with her career? Why did she need to do all this? Can she not step down? And in the absence of remarkable films, Sridevi’s personal life became a topic of discussion.

 

 

Having grown up on the moralistic values of middle-class India, fuelled by the tabloids and gossip columns of film magazines, we were now passing judgments on her choices. Looking up to a woman who had supposedly broken a happy family was not the done thing, not in the least for girls brought up in respectable families. At 17, we lacked the empathy to understand the complexity of human relationships. And so, just like that, Sridevi was taken off the pedestal forever. It is a different matter that no one else was put up there ever again. In time, with career, responsibilities, parenthood and a life to run, Sridevi became a distant memory. Her films were no longer watched; her clothes were no longer discussed.

When I heard of her comeback in 2012, I was skeptical. Times had changed, and so had the audience. Plus, I had seen her fail in the past. Protective and insecure, I started to dismiss the comeback, and her decision to do so. I did not want her to fail again. So much so, that even after rave reviews, I refused to watch English Vinglish for the longest time. I was afraid that it would turn out to be another Chandramukhi or Chaand Kaa Tukdaa. But Sridevi, being Sridevi, proved me wrong.

When I eventually did watch English Vinglish, I found myself laughing and crying with her. As a stay-at-home mother now, I could relate to everything happening with Shashi, her character. I felt her pain, I knew her suffering, I saw her complexes, I identified with her humiliation. It was as though I was looking at myself on the screen.

 

 

Time is a weird thing, though. Or maybe it’s got to do with age. After English Vinglish, I had expected myself to be following her like earlier — doing what she did, wearing what she wore, feeling what she felt — but that did not happen. On the contrary, I found myself quite put off by her off-screen identity. Here I was, looking for the woman who had once defined simplicity and elegance for me, whose persona I had borrowed from to create my own identity, and there I found a woman ostentatious in her choices, a celebrity in my face too much. Even though I was mature enough to not let that affect my regard for her as an actor, my indifference to her as a person only grew. She was no longer the woman I worshipped; I was no longer the girl who worshipped her.

“Do you know Sridevi died?” A call on Sunday morning from a school friend jolted me out of my sleep. What seemed like a rumour at first was confirmed soon after. I refused to believe it. Besides the obvious question of ‘how can a healthy person just die’ there was the reluctance to accept a dismaying truth — was my icon actually dead? No, it could not be.

When the feeling sunk in, the first thing I did was to look up Nagina on YouTube. And as I watched her light up the screen in her serpent avatar, swaying in her white lehenga, I once again became the 8-year-old who had fallen in love with her. This time for a lifetime.

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