In the deluge of grief and nostalgia following her death, we have collectively rediscovered Sridevi’s charm as an actress. Nobody before, or since, has exuded the innocence of a woman who is still a child at heart – goofy, prankish, unaware of her appeal – like she did, and then combined it with a quality that made her instantly desirable.
What goes into the making of a nation’s sweetheart? Cuteness, desirability and goodness, all in the right proportions. That would still not add up to the Sridevi magic. It was the mischief glinting in those wide eyes, under those fluttering lashes, which often looked at the world with a child’s wondering gaze. The kind of nice-naughtiness hinted at by the wink at her hero as she cuddled up to him, skirting with danger, but the safe bounds of formulaic films reined in the mischief, pulling it back into a non-threatening zone. Patriarchy was amused, but rarely threatened. Two of her best films sum up this duality. In Lamhe, the intrepid child-woman finally woos the stubbornly resistant older man she has adored all her young life. It is back to safe domesticity. In Chaalbaaz, the beer-guzzling, feisty Manju unleashes the full armoury of tricks on the villains, and completely sidelines Rajnikanth and Sunny Deol. She doesn’t need the streetsmart style of a Thalaivar or the weight of a dhai kilo ka haath. Sridevi justifes the Devi part of her name in a modern avatar, sufficient unto herself.
Truly, kisi ki haath na aayegi ye ladki. She answers the query posed at the beginning of the song: najaane kahan se aayi hai. We have collectively summoned up the cute, lovable and ruthlessly inventive heroine who can make us chortle with glee and root for her as we would the hero who lets his fists fly. Sridevi is the first ‘shero’ of mainstream cinema. No wonder, after her death, the media has crowned her the first female superstar, seeking recourse in easy labels rather than decoding her allure and appeal.
In the deluge of grief and nostalgia after her mystery-shrouded accidental death (at the time of writing), we have collectively rediscovered her charm as the archetypal child-woman. Nobody before and nobody since has exuded the innocence of a woman who is still a child at heart – goofy, prankish, unaware of her appeal – and also a creature of desire. She is the desired and also one who desires. It is a heady mix, whose potency does not lose its punch, even as we the audience have matured with the more explicit depictions of mutual desire in our mainstream cinema. There is this subconscious hankering for innocence, even as we sigh with pleasure when kaate nahin katte seduces us all over again.
Shekhar Kapoor and Sridevi made blue the hottest colour – delicacy laced with suggestion, as if Sridevi is whispering ‘I love you’ to her myriad of fans. For men, it was a fantasy come true, as if she was speaking to each of them individually – because she was making love to an unseen man. And women felt validated for expressing desire, decorously garbed in seductive femininity. Sridevi looked at the camera and us in the eye, and we couldn’t take our eyes off her. Can we call it a moment of epiphany for repressed people, who have been taught to mask desire?
A song that comes a close second is dhak dhak karne laga, filmed on Sridevi’s newly arrived supplanter. But Madhuri Dixit needed Anil Kapoor’s bemused presence, whereas Sridevi’s was a consummate solo act. She is so confident of herself and her sexuality that the shots of Anil Kapoor are reduced to a lurking presence, peeping in wonder/awe. The song underlines that Sridevi can command the screen and capture our gaze. All it needs is a director who has confidence in her.
When speaking of Sridevi’s memorable erotic scenes, one of her hit southern films – she was already a superstar in Tamil and Telegu films before she conquered Bollywood – comes to mind, one between her and Kamal Haasan in K. Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sirappu. She, in a towel, with beads of water still clinging to her shoulder and neck and he, mesmerised by her shy invitation. Wordless, with tasteful close ups, there is only a background score, again without words, only the ascending notes of the scale, courtesy M.S.Vishwanathan’s score. A grim film about unemployment of Tamil youth in distant Delhi, the ups and downs of this love story add genuine tenderness.
In whatever little I have seen of Tamil films, there is this lingering tenderness between two powerhouse performers (they acted together in more than 30 films). The best known to a pan- Indian audience is of course Sadma. Sridevi’s regression into a child during amnesia is a blend of the cute stubbornness and spontaneous affection for this young teacher, who falls hopelessly in love with her. She cuddles up in his lap, licks his palm that she has pulled under her cheek, unaware of his feelings. There is some melodrama, but there is also transparency that the two actors bring to this doomed relationship – doomed because she fails to recognize him when her memory returns. What could so easily lapse into facile sentimentalism is saved by grace, irony and sensitive performances.
If any proof was needed of an actor’s skill developed over decades, Sadma, Lamhe and Chaalbaaz are sterling testimonials. Sridevi started unbelievably young, as a four-year old facing the camera with aplomb. With round, expressive eyes, a halo of curls and charm that was endearing, she played a variety of roles in family melodramas. Accolades came to her young when she won the Kerala State Award for best child artist as Sarada, in the Malayalam film Poombatta. Can you believe she stood her ground against future superstars Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan as a 13-year old, in Moondru Mudichu, a love triangle with a twist?
In 16 Vayathinile, the original of Solva Saal, it was the same trio again. In Tamil and Telugu films, when not caught in the midst of family dramas (some remade with Jeetendra in Hindi), she was often the plump village belle – either in pavadai or the abbreviated sari bathing by the river side – complete with big nose ring, long braid, a string of jasmines and coyness to match. She remained a huge star in Tamil and Telugu, unlike her predecessors – Vyjayantimala, Hema Malini and Rekha – who abandoned their native cinema once they made it in Hindi.
At an international film festival held in Hyderabad during NTR’s time, I remembered how solicitously the thespian chief minister led a demure Sridevi, dressed like an Andhra bride in Kanjeevaram sari and gold belt, past the overflowing crowd in the sprawling public gardens, up to the stage. She was presented as the daughter and pride of Andhra. It is no wonder that one of Ram Gopal Verma’s most stylish noir thrillers, the Telugu Kshanam Kshana, starred the actor he called goddess and Venkatesh. Sridevi spiced the mystery with her signature blend of sex appeal and candid middle-class bias.
Another under-appreciated skill she mastered was the ability to pick up languages. Born to a Tamil father and a Telgu mother, she was effortlessly bilingual. She acted in far fewer Kannada and Malayalam films, but her enunciation is reported to be impeccable. But it was in Hindi films that her felicity with languages came through. After the first few, where she was dubbed, Sridevi picked up Hindi and English, speaking both languages without a trace of a southern accent. Her high, squeaky tone is an irritation that I often found difficult to endure, but I suppose they went with the kind of films she did. In a film like Laadla, it gave an edge of arrogance to her baby tycoon avatar, wilfully marrying a lowly union leader who finally tames the shrill shrew. The tone suited her brand of comedy: impeccable and instinctive timing, the art of making slapstick look spontaneous, the lack of inhibitions while making faces and crossing her eyes – she was so sure she would look cute doing it.
Take her Chaplin act in Mr.India. David Thomson (my favourite film author for his opinionated style and masterly insights) underlines Chaplin’s feminine grace, that makes him an androgynous icon. Sridevi nails this. For a dancer who oozes seduction in every hip thrust, she dares to look ungainly in the rain dance, covered in a raincoat, making her moves with a different kind of abandon. It is easy to imagine her carrying off hip hop with her own brand of flourish.
Parody has a special place in her comic genius. Just take the two medleys from her most popular films. The cleverly written jugalbandi in Mr.India between the importunate kids and the obdurate didi is centred round the football, where one of the little girls is a serious contender for cuteness stakes, but Sridevi holds her own. The Lamhe medley is more a prolonged visual antakshari kind of game. Sridevi has Anupam Kher and later Waheeda Rehman to carry off this audacious tribute that is more a parody. Her Nargis take off, swooning face and decorous upper body swing, is delightful. In that whole sequence, Sridevi is the archetypal teenager, thumbing a retrousse nose at the greats of the past with aplomb.
When in parody mode, Sridevi gets back to her Tamil roots. In the clunker called Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, she inserts a gem of a comic con. She breaks out into loud ayyayo wails, interspersed liberally with Tamil terms, as she tries to con the crowd into taking her side as the betrayed wife, while her rival thief is momentarily paralysed by her antics.
When Sridevi returned with gravitas after her 15-year absence, the films she chose – and that chose her – are a revelation of the actor pure and simple, minus the nakhras and mannerisms. English Vinglish is totally her film, as she carries us along with her journey into self-confidence and a new sense of identity. One line from the film stays long in the memory. ‘They love you’, says someone to Sridevi’s undervalued wife and mother, talking about her family. Some respect along with love is what she wants. And she gets it in believable fashion.
Her last film, Mom, deepens the gravitas with large chunks of silence, where Sridevi shows a gaunt, tightly controlled face to the camera. The once garrulous actor – on screen – shows she understands the power of silence and letting the image speak. Her gang-raped teenaged daughter screams like a wounded animal, rejecting the mother. The camera stays on Sridevi’s face which is a study in control, of containing her pain, and a lone tear rolls down her cheek. The lone tear speaks for the legions of her fans. We mourn a talent that achieved so much, without showing the effort that it took over so many years.