|13.08.1963 – 25.02.2018|
This was not the post I had earmarked for today. Nor is it a tribute that I thought I would be writing. I have grieved over the loss of my idols before, pouring out that emotion into heartfelt tributes to their careers and its impact on me. But this loss cuts deep – Sridevi is younger than my oldest brother. And it was not as if she were ailing. The news seemed unbelievable, and I assumed – hoped – for a moment that it was a hoax. 'How could she die?' I thought. 'Just like that?' But the news, as bad news always is, was true.
Sridevi was the quintessential director’s actress, moulding herself like clay into what her directors demanded of her. Director Shekhar Kapoor once remarked that Sridevi made love to the camera. The quiet, reserved woman who sat quietly in one corner of the sets, makeup on, waiting for her co-stars to arrive or the shot to be ready, would transform once the director called ‘Action’.
It was unfortunate that she made her debut in Hindi at a time when the industry was its nadir. She came in with the loud ‘dramas’ that passed off for cinema in those days. In fact, her official ‘debut’ Himmatwala, though a super hit, earned her the pejorative ‘thunder thighs’. (She had appeared in Solwa Sawan, a remake of her Tamil hit, 16 Vayathinale, five years earlier.) The Bombay film magazines were quick to dissect her every move – whether it was slamming her for her weight (tagging her with the description ‘thunder thighs’) or mocking her diction and dialogue delivery.
But Sri had the last laugh. She had the longest ever-reign on the top, and magazines had to reluctantly bow down to her star power, crowning her the first ever female superstar.
Sridevi could be cute, funny, sexy, glamorous, beautiful, dramatic... she brought in the crowds, selling movies on the strength of her name. At the height of her career, Sri made news for a) refusing a film with Amitabh Bachchan, saying the role had nothing to offer her and b) charging as much as Bachchan did – probably the first female actor to demand, and get paid on her terms.
She also worked hard on her dubbing – initially dubbed for by Naaz and later by Rekha, she first dubbed for herself in Chandni. Despite being more talented than the roles offered her, Sridevi made ‘heroine-oriented’ films, within the constraints of the commercial films of the time – none of which followed the revenge-drama tropes (which was what ‘women-oriented’ meant at the time) – Nagina, Mr India, Chaalbaaz, Army, Lamhe, Gumraah, Chandni…
Sridevi had begun acting when she was barely four. At 13, she was playing adult roles, acting romantic roles opposite heroes old enough to be her father. Even then, you got a glimpse of her talent – in Malayalam, in particular, she was enacting nuanced characters in a slew of films helmed by IV Sasi and N Sankaran Nair, often in very adult themes. (Having been exposed to her work in Tamil and Malayalam, I knew the range she could deliver.)
In Tamil, around the same time, she played Rajanikant’s step-mother in Moondru Mudichu, while playing romantic lead opposite friend and rival, Kamalahasan in films like Sigappu Rojakkal and 16 Vayathinale.
Her scintillating screen presence coupled with an impeccable comic timing (just watch Mr India’s Charlie Chaplin sequence if you don’t believe me), and an unabashed uninhibitedness that lent grace to the jhatak mataks of the 80s and 90s, Sri consolidated her position as the industry’s numero uno. My colleague, Madhuri, returned from the shooting of Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja awestruck by the way Sridevi transformed once the camera switched on. Another colleague, Nidhu, who had never seen any of Sridevi’s movies, was exhorted to join me and a friend at the premiere of Heer Ranjha, starring Sridevi and Anil Kapoor. During one of the film’s dance sequences, Nidhu, a Punjabi herself, breathed, ‘Sridevi is fantastic. Anil is typical Punjabi – all enthu, no grace.’ We laughed – we knew we had converted her into a fan.
When Sridevi ‘returned’ in English Vinglish, it was as if she had never left. A new generation became attuned to the sheer talent that exploded on screen in the form of a shy housewife who learns to respect herself. It was an inward look into a character’s motivations, and Sri played it like pro, making her Shashi a more layered character than first appears.
Sridevi was the rare superstar who hated publicity of any kind and agreed to very few interviews. Getting her to give you more than monosyllabic answers was a chore. Yet, that reserve melted away when she was ‘acting’ – it was as if a thousand personalities were hidden within her, struggling to come out. Watch her films and you would be forgiven for thinking she was an ebullient, vivacious, outspoken woman. Indeed, I do not know of any other actor who transformed herself so completely into someone she was not.
She was always larger than life to me, even when I saw her sitting patiently in one corner of the studio with her makeup on, waiting for her co-star to arrive. You could walk right past her – there were no superstar airs, no hangers on, no one who would dare penetrate that veil of dignity she wrapped herself in. There was a line you couldn’t cross. Yet, I'll always remember that she was punctual, polite, and courteous to a young journalist.
Another era, closer to home, has ended; a chapter has closed, the book left incomplete. Sridevi has left us – too soon, too bloody soon. She said herself that her best was yet to come, that she hadn’t done enough as an actor. That ‘best’ is gone forever.
I will write a longer tribute to her some day, but for now, Ye lamhe ye pal hum barson yaad karenge…