Being a mother in real life, Sridevi has bashfully emphasised in promotional interviews for MOM, her much-awaited crime thriller that hits theatres on July 7, has helped her understand the pain of her on-screen character Devki (the title’s mom). Watching her interviews, people might be inclined to believe that Sridevi related to the character and that’s why agreed to appear in the film, her first in five years since her acclaimed comeback English Vinglish (2012). No disputing that. But you might want to consider the other side of the coin, too. She was cast, perhaps, because she IS a mother to two teenage daughters, one of them – Jhanvi Kapoor – already being anointed by the paparazzi as the Next Big Thing. The film, as you might have guessed, is about a volatile mother-daughter relationship.
Sridevi is 53. She’s been acting as a child artiste since 50 years, MOM being her 300th film. At this age, she can’t be doing jhatkas around matkas anymore. It is clear Bollywood – where, cruelly, men are ageless clinics whereas women come with expiry dates – won’t allow her to romance Shah Rukh Khan. For that, you have Anushka Sharmas and Deepika Padukones. So, what else is left? Concept films. Both English Vinglish and now, MOM, are made by ad-filmmakers who grew up in awe of the phenomenon called Sridevi. And yet, they were not so madly reverential as to get carried away into miscasting Miss Hawa Hawai. If English Vinglish saw her as a coy, vulnerable mother (happy serving laddoos to family and guests, inviting derision from her indifferent husband) who gets a culture shock in America, a land where everyone speaks English, MOM delves into the moral dilemma of a mother.
“She’s one of the few actors in the Hindi film industry who over the years, you can take out her performances and it never looks jaded or old-fashioned although she’s been working for five decades. Her acting always looks today,” Akshaye Khanna, her MOM co-star, said in an interview with critic Anupama Chopra while an unusually fawning Nawazuddin Siddiqui looked on attentively.
That’s a curious claim, but not entirely unfounded. There’s indeed something about Sridevi that suggests classic. But like all classics, she is old-fashioned in her noticeable reticence about her private life. She rarely drops her guard down. Akshaye Khanna who is as quiet and private as Sridevi on the sets, was surprised how Sridevi “takes it another level” altogether, he observed in an interview to this newspaper last month. If the collective chemistry of Sridevi, Khanna and Siddiqui in TV studios is anything to go by, MOM is in serious trouble. But maybe, that’s just Sridevi and her media-shy and not-so-friendly-with-co-stars personality.
What makes the veteran actress so enthralling to filmmakers of today is her star-like aura which she has possessed much of her life. She’s not the greatest Hindi actor there ever was but she makes up for it with her child-like curiosity and commitment and devotion to her work. In interviews, she has said that she approaches every film as her first. As MOM neared release, she admitted, she was having butterflies-in-the-stomach moments. Talking to Anupama Chopra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui concurred, “That she acts as if it’s her first film, it shows on screen. She doesn’t repeat herself. She’s always in character, sustaining and maintaining emotions throughout.”
Her appeal also lies in her unassuming personality. She’s still the coy Tamil girl she always was. But that does not mean she doesn’t recognise a good script when she sees one. In discussing Sridevi, we must bear in mind that if the attitude of the audiences has changed towards Bollywood and what it stands for in the new millennium, it’s worth noting that even senior stars like Sridevi have developed a sharp understanding of the changes sweeping our cinematic landscape. Sridevi is no stranger to the new wave. A good example is her choice of English Vinglish. Keep in mind that Madhuri Dixit, her fierce rival, has had a no-show with her own comeback film, Aaja Nachle, in 2007.
In English Vinglish, Sridevi picked a subject that worked both as sly wink to her own struggle with languages (she still speaks Hindi with a Tamil accent and is ill at ease with English) and one that she knew would find resonance with a rising middle-class India forever looking at English as a marker for social upward mobility. Whether MOM finds a similar resonance with viewers, we will know this Friday.
On current evidence, we do know that Sridevi still has takers. MOM arrives in theatre at a time when talks are rife that her daughter Jhanvi Kapoor, only 20, will be launched by Karan ‘Who else?’ Johar, the official Godfather to Bollywood star kids. Mother and daughter working at the same time is a rare moment in Bollywood. It merely proves that Sridevi is far from out-dated. Akshaye Khanna would agree.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)