When compiling an alternative guide to cinema for Bombay Dost magazine, I had, without much uncertainty, included Harmesh Malhotra’s Nagina, a cult classic from the 1980s. It did not have any queer characters, nor was there a homosexual theme, subtextual or otherwise, embedded in the narrative. However, the film did star Sridevi, in one of her most iconic roles, as an icchadhaari nagin (literally shape-shifting snake-woman) who sporadically breaks into an almost infectious dance, writhing on the floor, flashing her imported coloured lenses, and striking like a serpent at onlookers, tantriks and snake-charmers alike. In that moment, so peculiar to Hindi masala cinema, a gay icon was born purely out of the irrepressibility of Sridevi’s screen persona.
In Toronto-based writer Vivek Shraya’s tenderly crafted homage to his own childhood, God Loves Hair, there is a story called Pervert in which, in a hilarious moment, a young Shraya accosts his cousin with a Nagina hand movement. The story is accompanied by a full-page illustration of Sridevi by artist Juliana Neufeld, and it is like a ‘found art’ moment in a rather precious little queer book. When he toured India with the book in 2010, Shraya was rather surprised to discover how huge Sridevi was with Indian gay men. “I was so in love with her as a kid that it (was) fascinating to know that this is something that is common for gay brown boys,” he said.
The guilty pleasure of being in love with Sridevi afflicts gay men to this day. In decidedly bourgeois house parties, where dapper gay men sip chardonnay out of tall glasses, dressed in dinner jackets to fend off the cold draught from the air-conditioning, the strains of the song ‘Main teri dushman...’ from Nagina are enough to send a quiver down their collective spine. Before long, the straight-acting is given up for some delicious Sridevi-style shimmying on the dance floor replete with hisses, glares and darting hand-movements —a few stolen moments that can be at once cringe-inducing and strangely liberating.
It’s this camp, over-the-top persona that Sridevi brought to her roles that has catapulted her into pole position as one of the more prominent pop-cultural icons of the past two decades. She was unlike the other tragic figures that gay men fawned over, like Meena Kumari or Judy Garland. Her magic lay in her cinematic effulgence.
One of her most famous production numbers was a sequence from Mr India. Sridevi’s bumbling scribe has penetrated the baddies’ den, but instead of sidling away to the sidelines, she decides to take the guise of the most conspicuously flamboyant person in the room, Ms Hawa Hawaai. She sports ostrich feathers, figure-hugging gold lame, and unflattering make-up that would douse a lesser actress’ elfin charm, but here, this sartorial inelegance draws out Sridevi’s three-dimensional presence: comic and self-deprecating, but also impossibly alluring. She hobbles across the floor in six-inch heels at first, before the high-pitched strains of Kavita Subramaniam’s vocals ‘kick’ her into her stride as the high-voltage electric diva rising from amidst the kitsch and the corn. Indian drag queens, long accustomed to parley out mujras made famous by the Rekhas and the Madhuri Dixits, find themselves out of their depth when it comes to Sridevi’s ‘items’, because Sridevi brought to her performances an ardent physicality that couldn’t be easily replicated.
When she is slapped by Anil Kapoor in Lamhe, she doesn’t fall simpering at her paramour’s feet, instead she breaks into a Jane Fonda-esque exercise video. Constantly harangued by her relatives in Chaalbaaz, she is allowed a moment at the very end of a lengthy tandav, when an adavu gone horribly wrong ends up with her slapping her oppressor. In Naaka Bandi she plays tribute to three generations of actresses, before insouciantly announcing herself as the definite article, “Main lagti hoon... Sridevi lagti hoon.” It’s this unbridled chutzpah, and unusual personality that went against the grain of what actresses on the Indian screen have long portrayed, that has endeared Sridevi to people who sought out parallel persuasions themselves.
The adulation continues. In a harrowing episode of his reality show Satyamev Jayate, actor Aamir Khan interviews victims of child sexual abuse. The line-up includes gay activist Harrish Iyer who recounts his own unsavoury experiences and the years of self-doubt and shame that he has had to overcome. As if to ease the unremitting tension, Khan proposes a diversion, a special surprise for Iyer.
When his favourite actress Sridevi walks in, in a staid brown sari, the audience bursts out in applause on cue, but Iyer’s open-mouthed ‘Aiyyo’, with its mix of joy, surprise, even instant catharsis, is an unrehearsed expression of this intense identification with an icon he shares with many others.
Lines from Sridevi movies continue to be part of the lexicon amongst gay men, even trite phrases like, ‘You understand? You better understand!’ from a regressive film like Laadla. Her 15 years away from the arc-lights have been like a kind of self-imposed exile, notwithstanding the occasional show-stopper appearances on the fashion ramp. For her fans, it has certainly been a long wait.
Now, in her new film, English Vinglish, a repertoire of fetching Sabyasachi saris and some pitch-perfect acting help Sridevi create one of her most winsome characters out of the decidedly austere housewife Shashi, who comes into her own when she takes time off from her wifely duties to learn English in Manhattan.
There are scenes that still offer us glimpses of the old Sridevi and her larger-than-life turns from the past. When she takes a difficult sip from her first glass of wine and screws her face up, we’re reminded of her frizz-haired Chandni as she cavorts drunkenly across the snow-capped Alps even while insisting that cognac is not alcohol. As Shashi sits timidly alongside septuagenarian Amitabh Bachchan on her first international flight, we are transported to the time the two actors roamed Afghanistan on horseback in Khuda Gawah, chasing the coveted prize of a speared goat carcass in a thrilling buzkashi encounter. When she breaks into an impromptu jig impersonating Michael Jackson, we remember her production numbers from Chaalbaaz where she channelised much more of the King of Pop than just a chiselled nose.
The new Sridevi is more than just va-va-voom. In a particular scene in English Vinglish, students at the language class discover that their teacher hasn’t been in for a few days because he has broken up with his boyfriend. It’s a Mind Your Language setting and the token Pakistani taxi-driver (played by theatre actor Sumeet Vyas) mouths off on the cavalier attitude gay men have towards relationships before Shashi interrupts him and delivers a homily on inclusiveness.
Although it is an unsubtle little scene, it still manages to drive home its point, and certainly, on Sridevi’s part, it’s almost like a belated nod to the millions of gay men scattered across the globe who idolise her. The gay teacher, who enters at this point, clad in a largish ‘grief’coat and dark glasses to conceal days of bawling his eyes out, certainly seems to appreciate the gesture. If you look around, the whooping and cheering gay men in the multiplex audience, some of whom have watched the film a few times already in its first weekend, are testimony to Sridevi’s enduring legacy as an alternative icon.
The writer is a playwright who runs the theatre appreciation website, Stage Impressions.
Other icons > Actresses who captured the gay imagination
>> MEENA KUMARI: The self-sacrificing persona of Meena Kumari had created a whole new sub-culture in the gay desi ghettos. Her mask-like face in the classic Pakeezah was a doppelgänger for the gay man as eternal victim, and their self-flagellating self-regard. The actress lends astonishing credence to the character of Sahib Jaan, the courtesan in the proverbial gilded cage, at once a young effervescent girl with the right amount of lachak in her stride, and a crushed woman with fragile porcelain-like features provided a specious virginal glow by Lata Mangeshkar’s magnificent vocals. Gay men have also appropriated as their own the magnificent mujra set-pieces from the film, which includes the pulsating
>> REKHA: Her soul diva persona and Asha’s assured delivery of Khaiyyam’s magical ghazals in Umrao Jaan make this a heady alternative to the tired tales of the courtesans of yore. Umrao (Rekha) is not quite the fallen woman, and not quite the damned one, and in her many mujras in the film, she demonstrates a flair for the most dexterously floral hand gestures that have for long become an essential part of any desi drag performer’s repertoire.
>> MADHURI DIXIT: For some inexplicable reason, Bhansali’s shrill calendar-art version of the Sarat Chandra Chatterjee novel, Devdas, has acquired a cult following among not just gay men adamantly spouting its melodramatic lines like it were latter-day Shakespeare, but also with drag performers for whom emulating Madhuri Dixit in ‘Maar daala...' is now de rigueur (obligatory).
>> SMITA PATIL: In Mandi, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, doyennes of Indian parallel cinema, bring in a frisky intimacy to the relationship between two women, one a brothel madam Rukmini Bai and the other, her prized ward Zeenat (Patil), as they take turns doing each other’s hair, while humming the film’s signature nazm by Mir Taqi Mir, ‘Zabaanein badalti hai’, while generally sprawled on one another. More than Azmi, Patil is one of the quintessentional fire-in-her-belly performers that gay men are especially fond of.
>> KAREENA KAPOOR: Her film Chameli largely takes place on a single set where an investment banker (Rahul Bose) is forced to take shelter from the rain, with only a prostitute (Kapoor) on the prowl for company. Characters arrive and leave as in a play, including the transsexual Haseena (Kabir Sadanand) who is about to elope with a young man. A drenched Kapoor dazzles in a red and blue sari, and makes some positive noises about gay couples, which includes that iconic line, “Apna to ek hi usool hai saab, koi bhi ho, kaisa bhi ho, bas pyar hona chahiye.”
>> HELEN: To gay audiences, Helen has always appeared to revel in her ‘otherness’. As Suzy, or Lily, or any other silk-stockinged alter-ego, she’s always the quintessential bad girl who transgresses, smokes, dances with gay abandon, wearing the most exuberantly mounted costumes you’d want to dive straight into if only to escape into a world where anything goes, where being different is good, and you’d even take a bullet in your heart for that.