Mystique that lives on still
Remembering the enigma wrapped in Sridevi, on her second death anniversary
Ask Mummy' was her nickname among the film press, primarily because that would be her answer to most questions directed at her during interviews. Mildly ironic that 'Mai' (for mother) became her popular sobriquet in the film industry that she practically ruled as the first (and perhaps the only proper) 'pan-Indian star', with 300 films, in five languages, over 50 years!
It's only befitting that the national movie hero's epithet went to a self-learnt song-and-dance sensation. For that's what has traditionally united India through its cinema culture — regardless of the region. Just her résumé would be hard to fit into text, having worked "six shifts a day" for years on end.
How does one even sit down to write about such a prolific career, let alone build a believable portrait, given the mystique around the painfully elusive Sridevi — who continued to confound fans, with mysteries surrounding her sudden death as well?
Writer Satyarth Nayak has indeed attempted a diligently researched, deeply felt, entirely fan-zoned, film-led biography, Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess (Penguin/Ebury Press), which I speed-read over the weekend, only to realise there is, in fact, no way to encapsulate Sridevi's life and times, without mythologising it further.
How else do you decode the incredible rise of a star, who started out playing the male Lord Murugan (a role that got associated with her), while she was only four years old —hiding behind her mother's pallu on the first day of shoot. She starred in her first Hindi film in 1972. And yet for 20 years after, despite a busy career in Bollywood, she lived out of a hotel (Centaur and Sea Rock) while in Mumbai — flying in and out of Madras.
Rekha, she once said, was her only friend (in the film industry). Her mother, Rajeshwari, took care of all her business dealings. She barely spoke with co-actors between shots on the set. Some of this reticence could have to do with language issues, since Sridevi, for the most part, was fluent in neither English nor Hindi.
But this overall shyness with interacting with people in general, and guarding her personal space, might be natural for someone who'd only lived in public glare since childhood. Surely you begin to crave anonymity from a life that's been so incessantly public. Also, achieving unprecedented stardom — where the simple fact of her being on a film's poster could guarantee masses in theatres — one would assume, makes you wary of the perennially fawning fellows in the film industry as well.
It's not like Sridevi had no rivals. Madhuri Dixit more or less took over from Sridevi, pretty much after the commercial success of Raja (1995) — a film that was centred on the female lead, and a role that Sridevi had turned down.
Likewise, Jaya Prada, also from down South, was a hard competitor, who eventually lost out after Nagina (1986), that skyrocketed Sridevi's fame into cult status, with a part that Prada had first refused. On pure returns on investment, Nagina was a bigger hit than Sholay.
But what Nagina also did, Nayak argues in his biography, is deeply endear her withing the vast LGBT community — among whom Sridevi, you'll notice, retains the top-shelf space still. There was something in the dual, 'icchadari naag' character, dealing with inner demons, and taking on the oppressor with an electrifying energy of song and dance, that the gay community instantly identified with.
Of course there are plenty of memorable Sridevi movies, before and after Nagina, that one can make Bollywood top-10 lists of — starting with Mr India (1987), Khuda Gawah (1992), and Lamhe (1991), on my page. But to associate cosmic stardom with movies is missing the woods for the trees. Nope, it isn't about acting either. Surely there are lots of great actors going to work on any given day.
It's the myths, folklore and legends that survive. For Sridevi, shoulders above her contemporaries at the box-office — taking on Amitabh Bachchan at the marquee; starring opposite three generations of superstars, both in the North and the South; taking on nine double roles in her career (possibly a world record) — who went into a complete hibernation for 15 years, leading a fully domesticated life, added to an aura that was already impossible to beat.
Then she made a striking comeback, with English Vinglish (2012) and Mom (2017), both deeply resonant with audiences/cinema that had changed so much. And then she disappeared. For good. Without notice, of any sort. What remains as reminisces are smatterings of trivia as folklore — her love for ice cream and anarkali (her favourite drink), pink walls and teddy bears in her home, her obsession with horror films and resultant nightmares…
This is that sort of old-world, mythical stardom, totally impenetrable for public access, that I can see growing with each year that Sridevi's no more. It's also the kind of stardom that we're unlikely to see repeated in the age of over-information.
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14
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