Updated: February 24, 2021 11:22:53 am
With a career spanning five decades — punctured by intermittent breaks — Sridevi was one of the most formidable stars who acted across films in languages like Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam. She started out as a child actor and graduated as a leading lady, earning critical praise and audience acclaim in no time. In fact, at one point, she was touted as the only female superstar in the country. The actor passed away tragically on February 24, 2018, at the age of 54.
Her long illustrious career has been written about in great detail over the years. In 2019, a biography titled Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess was published by Penguin Random House India. Authored by Satyarth Nayak, it provides a comprehensive chronology of her rise to stardom and the hurdles along the way.
Here’s an extract from the book, published with permission from Penguin Random House India.
Anil Kapoor debuted as a leading man in Woh Saat Din in 1983, as did Sunny Deol with Betaab, while Jackie Shroff also found his first solo hit in Hero. Yet, at the end of 1983, it was Sridevi dominating magazine covers. While Cine Blitz featured her and Jeetendra together on its December Special, Star & Style gave her a solo cover with the prophetic tagline ‘All The Reasons Why Sridevi Is Going To Be The Next Superstarni’.
With Jeetendra reaping box-office gold with the actress, other senior heroes now began making a beeline for her. The year 1984 saw Sridevi teaming up with Amitabh Bachchan for the first time in the political drama Inquilaab. While her performance as a woman of principles was applauded, her risqué numbers with Big B also grabbed eyeballs. If she is at her seductive best in ‘Aaj Abhi Yahin’, the raunchy ‘Bichchhu Lad Gaya’ has her and Amitabh executing playfully suggestive moves on a beach.
Despite sharing frame with the colossal star, Sridevi looks hardly fazed. A confrontation scene between the two towards the climax has the actress at her ferocious best. Another film titled Khabardar, announced around this time, promised to be a casting coup of sorts. Starring Sridevi, Amitabh and Kamal, it revolved around the subject of euthanasia. Shooting was almost complete when the makers suddenly developed cold feet due to the subject matter and shelved it for good. Sridevi also debuted with Rajesh Khanna in Maqsad (1984), and later appeared in NayaKadam (1984). The former features the sweltering track ‘Hai Hai Garmi Hai’ with Sridevi turning up the heat with Kaka.
When a Stardust reporter Sridevi asked her if she was doing films with Khanna only because he was working a lot with Jaya Prada, the actress acidly retorted: ‘Rajesh Khanna does not belong to anybody anyway. If he was Jaya’s property at one time, he will now be mine!’ But such outbursts from Sridevi were rare as she was still shy of interviews.
Still hardly fluent in English. Still discovering Hindi which would often lead to hilarious moments like when she had asked Somaaya during an interaction: ‘Why do they call Rajesh Khanna kaka? It sounds so much like ta-ta!’ With her habit of often diverting interview questions towards her mother, the media soon began calling her ‘Ask Mummy’!
Former Filmfare editor Rauf Ahmed recalls: ‘Sometimes she wouldn’t have the answer and sometimes she wouldn’t have the words. At times, she would just stare blankly at you. Once or twice I remember her sister encouraging her to speak well. More than articulating, she would communicate with her expressions—an impish grin or the widening of the eyes conveying exactly what she wanted to say. She also knew where to draw the line when answering professional and personal questions. If she trusted you, she would speak more openly. If you understood her craft, she would be a lot more articulate, but if you probed too much, she would clam up.
Many journalists labelled her as a dumb beauty, but Sridevi hardly bothered. For her, only the audiences mattered.’With Jeetendra, she featured this year in Tohfa (1984) and Akalmand (1984). The actress who had felt so overwhelmed during the shooting of Himmatwala was now totally at ease with her co-stars. Jeetendra shares an amusing anecdote from the sets of Akalmand: ‘I had to lift Sri in my arms during a song picturisation. I was not getting it right. Suddenly in front of the whole unit, she lifted me in her arms and started running. We were both giggling uncontrollably.’
Tohfa invoked the Jeetendra–Sridevi magic again in the track ‘Gori Tere Ang Ang Mein’. An obvious follow-up to ‘Nainon Mein Sapna’, the bejewelled actress frolics amidst scores of metallic pitchers. In this remake of Devata, she reprises her role of Lalita with the same emotional depth.
With Tohfa declared a blockbuster within a week of its release, Sridevi soared even higher now. Despite Jaya Prada’s presence, the film’s success was credited mostly to the Sridevi factor. This could have been because while Janaki was a conventional character, Lalita was the iconoclast. This was perhaps a teaser of how Sridevi would soon subvert patriarchal tropes both on- and off-screen. India Today now wrote: “Sridevi’s star is certainly in rapid ascendancy. Overnight, the leggy teenager has turned into Bombay’s biggest sex-symbol, the reigning queen of commercial cinema. The price people are paying her has never been paid to an actress before.”
Maqsad (1984), the remake of Mundadugu, again pits Sridevi against Jaya Prada to create that same temple dance-off in the ‘Naagraja’ song, their sense of competition still intense. With both actresses sharing frames in Hindi cinema now, their regional rivalry spilled over to the national stage. Despite Jaya’s headway with Sargam four years back, Himmatwala had placed Sridevi right next to her.
If some called Jaya the better actor, others named Sridevi as the bigger star. If some said Jaya had the face, others said Sridevi had the body. If Jaya was trying to be a devi, Sridevi was turning into a diva. So fiercely did this debate rage that the industry and media soon began choosing sides.
Rauf shares an intriguing incident: “I was a Jaya Prada loyalist. I found her more sophisticated, while Sridevi I felt was too garish. I remember having this discussion with Javed Akhtar one evening when I was doing a cover story on Sri. He smiled and said that audience tastes had changed and that Sridevi had brought a new sensuality to the screen. He was confident that she would rule the roost.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines