Mayank Shekhar: Why Sridevi is larger than life
Because everything about the 54-year-old actor still remains a mystery, including, depressingly, her sudden death in Dubai
Sridevi at the 'English Vinglish' premiere in 2012 in Canada. Pic/Getty Images
It was towards the end of the balderdash '80s in Bollywood that Rishi Kapoor once visited producer-director Yash Chopra's office, as he recalls in his autobiography Khullam Khulla: "I saw him [Chopra] bent over a diary, scribbling something. After a while he excused himself to go to the washroom and I couldn't help peering into the diary he had left open on the desk. I saw that he had written, 'Help Me O God' again and again, on page after page!"
Here's what had happened. Chopra had bet his career on the film Chandni (1989), which had been wholly written off by film trade-smiths, even before its release. This is unsurprising, given the film's 'hero' was Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan, or Sridevi, in a chiffon saree. Kapoor and Vinod Khanna were her co-stars. And, the film was a relatively subtle kind of romance, rather than a violent, mad-cap actioner, or a movie with multiple sub-plots, bum-shots, pots, and feather dusters, and the hero in jet black wig, painted sideburns, on a beach, with the heroine dressed as a cross between a bride and a Bharatnatyam danseuse, moving to 'Tathaiya Taithaiya Ho'.
Basically, Chandni starred Sridevi. But, it was so not Padmalaya Pictures' Himmatwala (1983), which also starred the Telegu-Tamil heroine Sridevi — in the biggest Bollywood hit of the '80s that irreversibly caramelised the Hindi film screen to unleash a rather bizarre kind of popular cinema that had its roots down South, and had as its main tree, among others, Jeetendra, flying down to shoot in Madras/Hyderabad, in white shirt, trousers and shoes, effectively taming the shrew, or the arrogant, rich heroine.
Himmatwala's thunderous success, I suspect, ended up directing a lot of better Bollywood filmmakers towards television instead. So there was, at one end, the art-house/parallel cinema (that hardly got a proper theatrical release), and the golden age of television that the middle-classes were glued to. On the other end, developed a parallel universe of pictures, generated from an assembly line. Chopra himself had apparently decided to shut down his company, and make short films for Gulshan Kumar's T-Series, if Chandni didn't work. Miraculously enough, it did. But, not for the same screen image of Sridevi that millions had been flocking to theatres for.
Jeetendra played the hero in 106 films between 1980, and '90; 17 of them, if I'm not mistaken (since no one keeps count), had Sridevi as the female lead, following on Himmatwala's success, with films like Tohfa, Mawaali, etc — with her voice (such an important facet of an actor) dubbed in Hindi by someone else.
Honestly, like many others, I was never a fan of the popular Hindi pictures of the '80s — a form of films that earned the label, or the pejorative, 'Bollywood' in the first place, extending into the early '90s, forcing us to, as Sridevi put it in the film Laadla (1994), "Understand? You batter understand!" Nope, couldn't.
What's harder to make sense of is the persona of Sridevi that left in its wake fanatics, who would obsess over her absolutely every day. I know a Mangalorean filmmaker who, for years, has only been posting eulogies to Sridevi on Facebook, in the same way that director Ram Gopal Varma based a whole film (Mast), besides major chunks of his memoir, on his personal obsession with and bhakti for Sridevi — only reflecting an equally public fandom.
What was so special about Sridevi? Don't get me wrong, I've loved a lot of her films, Sadma (1983), Mr India (1987), Lamhein (1991), Khuda Gawah (1992) included, like any other film-buff. But, her performances in 300 movies — having started her career as an overworked child actor from the age of four, starring as an adult romantic lead since she was 10 (what does that even mean!), right down to her incredible comeback, lately, with English Vinglish (2012) and Mom (2017) — can't explain the mysteriously goddess-like superstardom alone.
I suspect it has much to do with the fact that like actual stars, we observed her from a distance, up in the sky (or the big screen), rather than ever as a fellow traveller. I've read pages after pages of obituaries, and the common portrait that emerges, is that she was shy. And, you know what, once, when she met the concerned writer, she said 'Hi!' And, a few other nuggets that revealed nothing about 50 years of a life lived wholly in the public eye.
It'd be impossible to recreate such stardom in the age of mass-media — social, or otherwise. I suspect Sridevi understood this as well, complaining pretty much during all her press interactions before the release of her last film, Mom (interviews that she had declined over decades), that she simply hated talking about herself. In the most depressing career move thrust upon her, and us, now we know as little about her life as her shocking death. This cult, I reckon, might just emerge as a religion of sorts.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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