I met Sridevi, the diva with the sea-foam eyes, in the autumn of 2012. Five years later, I was sitting opposite her husband Boney Kapoor, proposing a book that captured the legend’s five-decade long cinematic odyssey.
Sri was game for it, but Janhvi had just signed Dhadak and the superstar sent word that we could do the book after her daughter’s debut was done. Then February 24, 2018 happened and Sri suddenly left us alone. So I deleted the ‘Sridevi Book’ folder from my laptop. Then a friend texted me. I owed her this book, she said. I must still write it and the only difference from my original plan would be that the book would have a last chapter. So I embarked on the journey and discovered that Sridevi was a multiverse in herself.
I had no idea that as a child star, her repertoire numbered 60 odd films across five languages. Acting since the age of four, Baby Sridevi had shared screen space with stalwarts like Sivaji Ganesan, Jayalalitha, ANR and NTR and yet held her own. She had watched another child actor drown during a shoot and had suddenly matured. She had watched her director worship her on his sets because she was portraying Lord Murugan and realised that there was something sacrosanct about being an artiste. A girl could play boy roles. A human could play a god. More such dichotomies would soon abound for Sridevi. She would be a woman who remained a child; a heroine who would become a hero.
At the age of 12, Sridevi became a leading lady. At 13, she played stepmother to Rajinikanth. While a Bharathiraja classic enshrined her as Mayil in Tamil cinema, a Raghavendra Rao blockbuster immortalised her as Athiloka Sundari for Telugu audiences. If nuanced Tamil roles refined her art, masala Telugu fare converted her into a matinee idol. No wonder Ram Gopal Varma reminisces that Sridevi’s arrival on his sets would be heralded by a dramatic column of dust in the sky caused by hundreds of frenzied fans sprinting behind her car. “She made me realise what stardom truly was,” he says.
The actor and the star
This stardom magnified when Sridevi emerged as the only actor in the history of Indian cinema to be No. 1 in the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu industries simultaneously. The only Bollywood queen-bee to remain No. 1 for over a decade. While the media hailed her as India’s first female superstar, industry-wallahs reverentially addressed her as ‘Mai.’ Such was Sridevi’s star-power that despite being called the female Amitabh, she refused films with Mr Bachchan unless she had equally solid rikes. Bachchan had to woo her with a truckload of flowers to sign Khuda Gawah (1992). Her stardom was bigger than that of the heroes. Her paycheck was fatter. She had taken the status of the Indian heroine to a whole new dimension. Bollywood still remains patriarchal and misogynistic but back then, Sridevi had tamed it.
Baby Sridevi’s repertoire numbered 60 odd films across five languages
She became a messiah for many actors because she had the courage to be irreverent on screen. She made silly faces in Mr India (1987) and conveyed the message that it was cool to be un-ladylike. She crooned the Chandni (1989) chartbuster in that shrill tone and taught us that it was fine to be flawed. She wore campy costumes in Chaalbaaz (1989) and hammered home the point that one must embrace one’s true self. She portrayed a mythological hero trouncing toxic masculinity in Nagina (1986) and became an LGBT icon. Constantly playing the iconoclast on screen, Sridevi empowered a whole generation.
Strength of a woman
And she remained the quintessential child-woman. She easily fell for Kamal Haasan’s pranks. She mimicked Bollywood actresses for her friends in Chennai and left them in splits. At the peak of her career, she admitted to a sense of personal inadequacy in finding a husband. She coped with her father’s sudden death and mother’s botched-up brain surgery. She took a 15-year long break to focus on her husband and daughters and then made a historic comeback.
It will remain forever ironic that the last words she spoke on celluloid were, “Next time!”
Author bio: Satyarth Nayak is an author and a screenwriter. A former journalist, Mumbai-based Satyarth’s debut novel The Emperor’s Riddles became a best-selling thriller.
From HT Brunch, May 3, 2020
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