With the passing of Sridevi, we have lost not just a great star. We have lost the part of our innocence which effortlessly conjured up magic cloaks and invisible superheroes: the spell was cast by Miss Hawa Hawaaii who spun and pirouetted and ‘giraoed bijli’, and created a happy symphony for all times. When Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr India came out in 1987, and gave us the immortal Miss Hawa Hawaaii, Sridevi was already in need of a makeover.
It was in 1983 that Sridevi made her real Bollywood splash with the pulpy Himmatwala with Jeetendra, a Hindi film with its gaudy Telugu roots fully visible. The Bombay tabloids lost no time in dubbing her, gleefully and unkindly, Thunder Thighs, an epithet that stuck. In the same year came Sadma, the frame-by-frame copy of Moondrum Pirai, in which she showed her actorly chops alongside Kamal Haasan, but it was her singing-dancing-squeaky avatar which was replayed over dozens of films, one indistinguishable from the other, till she fetched up in Mr India.
That propelled her into the big league. Soon enough, the King of Romance Yash Chopra took her over, and made her a Yashraj heroine, with the mandatory Swiss slopes, swooning heroes, and fifty shades of chiffon. She’d already rocked the look in the incendiary “Kaate Nahi Katate” song in Mr India: who can forget that royal blue chiffon-clad full-bodied shimmying frame? She ‘khankaoed her nau nau choodiyan’ in Chandni, and Rishi Kapoor fell hard. Then came Lamhe, a film so far ahead of its times that you still can’t believe it was made. Sridevi played a double role (she did a bunch of doubles in her career) of mother-and-daughter, dealing with a man (Anil Kapoor in one of his best performances) who has feelings for both. Gasp.
That was her decade, in which she did such films as Khuda Gawaah in which starred with Amitabh Bachchan (when we see a draped-in-a-shawl Bachchan drop by for a walk-on part, years later, in her 2012 English Vinglish, it is a moment), and Chaalbaaz in which she memorably made whoopee with Sunny Deol and her constant co-star Rajinikanth. Except for Madhuri Dixit (with whom she is erroneously compared because Sridevi was already a top-flight star in the South when she crossed over into Bollywood, where she had come to expand her horizons, instead of a hopeful newcomer like Dixit), she had no real rival, and we went to see her do her thing in film after film: she pulled faces, rolled her eyes, pouted madly, and spouted dialogues in her thin, breathless voice, but that was the way she rolled, and her fans couldn’t get enough. Even those of us who loved her not quite so indiscriminately knew that we were in the midst of a great comedienne who could do rollicking physical comedy and over-wrought emotion, as well as underplay beautifully, when she was given a chance.
By the late 90s, Sridevi had clocked over a staggering fifty years in the Indian film industry, with 300 films in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, and, of course, Hindi. It was an opportune time for Sridevi to bow out of the rat race to focus on her family and regroup. When she ‘came back’, after a gap of fifteen years, with English Vinglish, playing a middle-aged woman in search of herself, it seemed like it was art imitating life: an actor preparing for a rousing second go round.
More than anything else, Sridevi typified that rare creature, the Bollywood actress who didn’t want to go slowly into the night, and was determined to do something about it.
Bollywood, like all mainstream, male-star-dominated industries, has still not found an easy way to incorporate ‘older’ women into their stories; Sridevi, at 54, had proved that she was still a crowd-puller, and there were hopes that she would pave the way for other actresses on a similar slope. Madhuri Dixit has appeared in a couple of films, as has Manisha Koirala, but it was for Sridevi that whole films were being written.
After English Vinglish, she toplined the rape-revenge drama Mom. It gave the actress, whose enormous potential had remained unexploited, an author-backed role as the woman who goes after her teenage daughter’s killers, and she proved all over again what she always had: here was a genuine 24 karat star in films that often didn’t quite match her wattage.
That could be an apt epitaph for Sridevi, unforgettable leading lady, and Bollywood’s first female superstar, a marquee name which could open films on her own. With her daughter Jahnvi debuting in a Karan Johar film, she would have become a star-mom, too. If she had lived to see it. But for our generation of movie-lovers, Sridevi was, and will always be, pure electricity, bonafide ‘bijli’, who, at her best, lit up the screen.