The clock struck 12 and it was the 25th of February when I was driving the street and returning back to home after a dinner with my friend when my 19yo brother on Facebook questioned who Sridevi is. I obviously got the clue but for a couple of minutes, I just couldn’t believe that Sridevi, the queen of hearts, is no more.
Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit were the top-billed heroines of the Hindi cinema of the 80s and 90s. Both dominated the film industry, achieved marvellous success and numerous awards, and occupied the hearts of millions of fans around the world. Both were fabulous dancers and both had the quality and ability to compete with the leading male actors on box office by running the film on their own. The reason for stating this is because of the cinematic culture of India where the business of the film heavily depends on the leading male actor. These two unchallenged queens of divas never starred in a film together which speaks of an obvious professional rivalry.
My earliest memory of Sridevi is watching her in ChaalBaaz which I happened to watch on VHS. ChaalBaaz was the remake of Ramesh Sippy‘s Seeta Aur Geeta and Sridevi played a spectacular double-role. Later on, I watched dozens of films in which Sridevi starred like Mr. India, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, Janbaaz, Aakhree Raasta, Himmatwala, Joshilaay, Khuda Gawah, Laadlaa and many more.
It is hard for today’s generation to understand the hype of Sridevi’s demise and what she meant to the Indian cinema. Her contribution is stupendous. In honour of her memory and dedication to the Indian cinema, I began writing this eulogy for Sridevi, to whose beauty I am deeply gratified, after knowing about her demise. Let me try to highlight a few segments of her career.
It has been forty years to P.Bharathiraja‘s classic 16 Vayathinile which starred Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, and 13-year-old Sridevi. The film was about a 16-year-old village girl who wishes to become a teacher but her life is stuck between the two lovers.
The emotional performance in 16 Vayanthinile was incredible. The scenes when her character Mayil is spotted by the rich doctor, or when the doctor takes his chance on her, and a few more scenes. It is very tough at 13 to play such emotional roles. Such a sensitive scene like Rajini’s rape attempt on her showed that the actress was daring and courageous enough to grab any given role.
It is surprisingly strange that in the Indian cinema, we hardly see the leading ladies taking a challenge of playing the character of a mentally or physically challenged woman. Tell at least three such roles in the next 10 seconds! Tough isn’t it? The best to our memory is Rani Mukerji/Ayesha Kapur in Black, Priyanka Chopra in Barfi, or Jaya Bachchan in Koshish.
Sridevi is among the very few leading actresses to have played such a tougher role and the obvious evidence is Balu Mahendra‘s Tamil film, Moondram Pirai and its Hindi version, Sadma (released a year later). Sridevi took months in the preparation for the role of a young girl who suffered retrograde amnesia after a car accident. It was her versatility at such a young age that she displayed a stunning performance straight from the scene when she opens her eyes and widens her big eyes to see two strange people standing in front of them who are actually her parents. While the parents try to comfort her, she is unable to recognize them.
From that scene until she recovers, her mental performance and body language were unbelievable. The way she observes the puppy dog and plays with it, the funny fight scene and saree scene with Somu (Kamal Haasan). Sadma was only her 2nd Hindi film but at 20, she already had established her name in Indian film industries of other languages.
Here, I must mention the name of Kamal Haasan, and praise and thank him for his contribution to the film. Because the characters of Kamal and Sridevi in the films were one of the most unusual pairings and their extraordinary performances helped the films to be remembered for decades. Balu’s direction and their onscreen presence aided the film to conclude at one of the most dramatic and emotional ends. I recommend the readers to read Subhash K. Jha’s excellent film review for the Indian Express. In my opinion, Moondram Pirai/Sadma were Sridevi’s best performances of her prestigious career.
Shekhar Kapur‘s Mr India was memorable for not one but many reasons. Count Amrish Puri‘s unforgettable villainous role of Mogambo, and Anil Kapoor‘s title role, but Sridevi was also a major factor in the film’s outstanding success for not one but at least three reasons.
One was her comic performance in the film at numerous occasion most memorably in that Charlie Chaplin sequence.
Then her performance in the song Hawa Hawaii, her slapsticks and moves. The song made singer Kavita Krishnamurthy a stellar.
Then another song, “I Love You“. Sridevi in a blue saree for me is still more sensual than nowadays skin shows. Although both Hawa Hawaii and I Love You were one of Sridevi’s biggest hit numbers of her career but the significance of the latter is the solo show in the entire six and a half minutes of the song. Sridevi here proved that the choreography of the song can run solely on a woman with the masculine voice in the background. Sridevi’s sex appeal in the song is still considered one of the hottest choreographies in the Hindi cinema. She was just out of the world.
There had to be something in Yash Chopra‘s mind that after a series of back to back failures and below average performances of his films starting from Kaala Patthar to Vijay that he chose to cast Sridevi for the first time as the leading cast to play the title role of Chandni. Yash Chopra wanted to change the action era of the 80s by making a romantic film and announced Chandni.
Being a female-centric film, Sridevi proved to be the perfect girl to play Chandni one can imagine. If the blue saree in Mr India wasn’t enough to melt our hearts, comes white churidar and kurta with a leheriya dupatta which looked incredibly simple and beautiful on Sridevi.
Sridevi made Chandni a cult classic. The legacy is that the film inspired the women to buy the Chandni white dress in Chandni Chowk. Two famous numbers from Chandni graced Sridevi’s career.
One was ‘Mere Haathon Mein’ which became India’s most famous chooriyan (bangles) song.
And then the classical tandav dance number where she turned into some mythical Goddess again in the white dress. Sridevi looked some Venus in that dance sequence but then, when did she never looked Venus?
The moment in the song Mitwa when the flute begins to play Tere Mere Honton Pe and Sridevi releases herself from Rishi Kapoor‘s arms and begins stepping to dance slowly, it is so mesmerizing! It is like an angel of love has descended down to comfort our souls.
Two years later, when the action era in Bollywood continued to race furthermore years, Lamhe happened. Yash Chopra again cast Sridevi and this time for a double role. In my opinion, Lamhe wasn’t Sridevi’s finest works. Coming from a journey where she did Nagina, Mr.India, ChaalBaaz, and Chandni, Lamhe wasn’t that wow. Considering that she had done double roles before and if double-role has to be the criteria, then the forthcoming film Khuda Gawah was a way better double performance. Sridevi did win the Filmfare award for the Best Actress but she may have won that for many films she was nominated before and later.
Versatile actress Manisha Koirala once stated in the interview that both Lamhe and Chandni were her dream roles.
In the 90s, if there was any director who really worked and improvised on Sridevi’s acting, it was Mahesh Bhatt. Gumrah‘s Sridevi was pretty different from her previous works like her reaction to her ailing mother’s death. And when she is wrongly caught for cocaine in the airport, she has a powerful facial performance of dropping into a sudden ill fate. The way she loses herself in shock after the drugs are produced from the handbag and begin screaming her boyfriend’s name in confusion is a remarkable shot. Her prison fight scene for a key with a female prison ward shows how the innocent character can bring rage and go violent. Her emotional personification, complexity to the character, her timing were top notch. Gumrah was indeed one of Sridevi’s finest works.
Gauri Shinde‘s debut film, English Vinglish, marked Sridevi’s first grand comeback in the Indian film cinema after 15 years. And the role she played was her testimonial to her dedication towards constructing her phenomena. Just like she entered the Hindi cinema with no fluency in the language, she played the character of a small entrepreneur who learns to speak English to gain self-respect among her family.
This film set a base for Sridevi as an introduction of yesteryear’s heroin in the second innings of her age. Playing a real character role in her late 40s and giving competition to the new faces. Sridevi became an institution to the new generation and taught the fluctuation of confidence. That test of her spiral benevolence was her attribute.
How dynamic is that restaurant scene when she levels up her confidence and courage to place her order in English resulting in the cashier losing her patience in unsuccessfully cooperating with her. Dropping of coins from shaking hands in tension, and accidentally hitting the other customer were very rich scenes. It was a flawless timing where Sridevi displayed some embarrassing moments of millions around the globe.
But Sridevi summarized her entire brilliance and translated her legacy in the final speech making the viewers think if Sridevi really had English issues in real life. The way she began the speech, tried to set the tone with some words, pushed herself to built confidence and gave tips to the bride in the most simplest English was so human and natural.
Her final leading performance and confirmed to be her 300th film by many sources. Mom is one of the most vibrant and unforgettable performances by Sridevi. She plays a stepmother who wants to win her stepdaughter, Arya. Arya is gang-raped, the family is broken and loses the case in the court against the culprits. So she musters her courage and wills to get her daughter justice.
The film will annoy the viewers with the fact that if the angel of death had not followed her for a while, Sridevi in her 50s would have done wonders and gracefully stretched her already 50-year acting career. Because many leading actresses, who earned their name and reputation in the cinema, either get married and retires or sparingly shows up in their 40s and 50s.
Besides the above picks, I imagine Sridevi’s domination would have been unmatchable if she would have worked in Beta, Darr, Baazigar, Mohabbatein, Baghban, and Baahubali when/if offered. Beta was a huge miss and her rival Madhuri took the centre stage with that Dhak Dhak number. Yash’s original choice for Darr was Sridevi but she refused. Abbas-Mastan planned to have Sridevi in a double role of twin sisters in Baazigar but then opted for Kajol/Shilpa to play those roles.
Sridevi’s lack of interest scrapped her character in Mohabbatein who was supposed to be Amitabh‘s love interest. Baahubali’s character of Sivagami played by Ramya Krishnan was first offered to Sridevi which she declined due to her commitment to the other project. But the mother of all misses is declining Steven Spielberg‘s offer to play a character in Jurassic Park. And her reason was that the role was small and unworthy of her star stature. Oh, my.
Thank you for reading. This is the conclusion of the first part of the tribute to Sridevi. Please wait for the second and final part. Will be posted soon.