In a country such as India where cricket and films are akin to religion, the untimely death of a superstar has a numbing effect and bonds people of all faiths and castes in collective mourning. Sridevi’s demise has had the same impact. A great deal is now being said about her acting prowess, her versatility, her box-office saleability and her personal charm, grace and dignity. Hearing it all, the truth of the saying that a person’s worth is best understood after his/her death comes out forcefully.
It is so easily forgotten that in the early years of her career in the Hindi film industry, she was ridiculed as being ‘dumb’, unsocial, and even arrogant. Even her physique was lampooned and she was derided as “thunder thighs”. It never occurred to those making these uncharitable remarks that she had just stepped out in a new world that she had not had the exposure to languages other than Tamil and so her communication skills in Hindi and English was limited. Naturally, she was reserved.
It is ironical that Sridevi, who floored the audiences with her fine performances in Chandni, Lamhe, English Vinglish and MOM, began her journey to stardom with imbecile films such as Himmatwala and Tohfa. But here lies her greatness, because she transformed herself so effortlessly. Bye the time she bid her career goodbye after her marriage to producer Boney Kapoor, nobody remembered her for those earlier films but for the brilliant ones that came later. And yet, the impish quality which had endeared millions of film viewers never went away — whether it was in Chaalbaaz or Chandni.
Sridevi is now being hailed as the first female superstar of Hindi films. That may be so because of her box-office draw in her heyday and for the female-centric films she did after her comeback. But there had been female actors before who carried films on their shoulders. Nargis in Mother India and Nutan in Sujata are excellent examples. Nargis dominated the screen, reducing the likes of Raj Kumar and Sunil Dutt to subordinate positions. Similarly, Nutan’s understated but powerful performance overshadowed that of Sunil Dutt’s.
What, however, stands out in Sridevi’s case is that she managed to set the silver screen on fire at a time when the male hero refined supreme in the 1980s and the early 1990s. The Angry Young Man was still the king, and in the midst of that came Chaalbaaz. It was a double bonus for viewers because Sridevi was cast in a double role. Her scale of dominance need not be overstated: Even the mighty Rajinikanth ended up playing nothing more than a supporting role.
She was an actor who not just shed the fear of the world when she landed in Mumbai, leaving behind her comfort zone in Chennai, but also was brave enough to accept risky roles. The Hindi film industry is replete with stories of how leading actors, both female and male, refused roles because of the fear that they would damage their carefully cultivated ‘image’ among the masses. By accepting Lamhe, Sridevi demonstrated that the scope the script gave to her mattered more than an ‘image’. The film didn’t do well because the audience could not digest its revolutionary story, but her role continues to be talked about as one that is among her best. Her stature was such that even failures didn’t dent her acceptability. Roop Ki Rani, Choron Ka Raja was a mega flop — and it deserved to. But Sadma too didn’t do well, which was a pity.
Her dancing skills were legendary, and she was one among the female actors who came from the south accomplished in the art. Her contemporary Jayaprada too was in the same league — though their film journeys could not have been more different. Earlier, there had been Vyajanthimala, Waheeda Rehman and Hema Malini. Thus, it was only befitting that the new star who emerged on the horizon after Sridevi — Madhuri Dixit — also went on to make a mark by her dazzling dance performances in films. How wonderful it would have been had a film been made with dance at the core, starring Madhuri Dixit and Sridevi!
Sridevi had only years ago returned for her second innings. She had made a glorious start, and there was much more to be done. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. Her life was short, but the range of her performances was way beyond what many actors can hope to achieve.