It was a Friday in the early 2000s, and I had quickly finished my dinner and excitedly taken my position in front of the TV sharp at 9:30 PM, to watch the week’s ‘Lux Superhit Film’. Chaalbaaz was the movie of the week and I asked mom who the actor is. Rather nonchalantly came the reply, ‘Sridevi’. Mom was obviously enamoured by the aura of Sridevi, but what I had asked her was the hero’s name. Few breathes later she said ‘Oh, Sunny Deol and Rajnikanth bhi hain uske saath’. ‘Uske Saath (with her)’? My benighted mind was too stereotyped to comprehend that a movie can have an actress as a lead with few actors playing supporting levers. Bollywood does this to you. A preconceived notion resides in your head that the lead man is the one around whom the story would revolve. Rather tacitly, the glass walls of my mind shattered and for the next two hours I sat in amazement as Sridevi laid bare a gamut of emotions and a range which was unparalleled, to play two characters which are poles apart, the coy ‘Anju’ and the perky ‘Manju’.
Sridevi was blessed with amazingly dramatic eyes and could juxtapose vulnerability with resolve through a slight lowering or raising of her eyebrows. She was the sensual goddess draped in chiffon sari while dancing to ‘Kaante Nahi Katt Te’ and she was also the autistic Nehalata in Sadma which made every eye watching the movie moist while earning her a National award too. She has never been the quintessential damsel in distress in her movies. Most of the successful movies in her career which spanned nearly 45 years have been about the characters and the command she exudes in front of the camera. Be it Judaai, Nagina, Chandni, Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja, Khuda Gawah, her zest and subtle emotive skills bound the audience in a stupor which gave her the epithet of ‘first female superstar of Bollywood’. Even in Janbaaz, her brief role and her song and dance routine on the classic ‘har kisiko nahi milta pyar’ lingers in the audiences’ memory even after decades.
Sridevi’s entire life has been her career. She started as a child actor in Thunaivan in 1969 at the age of four and her last movie before her untimely demise was Mom which released in 2017. It was coincidently her 300th role on screen. Her demise yesterday reminded me of a similar child star to superstar story from Hollywood, of the great Elizabeth Taylor. Similar to Sridevi, Elizabeth started acting as a toddler, moved to commercial movies in her teens and kept acting till a few years before her death from heart disease. Sridevi’s was an absolutely untimely death. With movies like English Vinglish and Mom she was part of the paradigm shift in Bollywood which finally recognised the housewife’s tale as a subject matter worth exploring. No one can be the epitome of an independent successful wife and mother who follows her passion after taking some time out for family, then Sridevi. She ruled on her own terms, bid adieu to acting on her own terms and made a sparkling come back with relevant stories, yes, on her own terms again.
As the nation mourns a demise so premature, I want to celebrate her legacy and the volume of work she has left behind. It’s not every day that Bollywood gives you a queen who created a flutter through her acting and made directors create characters keeping the female lead in mind. A Sridevi movie created as much buzz as any mainstream actor’s movie. What remains with us now, apart from the characters that she portrayed, is the image of a sari clad Indian superstar with prominent eyebrows and steely glare who not only found a place for herself in Bollywood, but ruled it for a decade.
“Pehle main tumhaare pyaar mein deewani thi, Aaj main tumhaare izzat ki deewani hun”, Sridevi said in one of her movies. You will always have the biggest respect of your ardent fans Ma’am. Rest In Peace Miss Hawa Hawaai!