A mondegreen is a mishearing of a phrase that occurs due to the phonetic similarity of words. It’s known to happen often with songs, and the first time it happened was when I was a child, watching Mr India (1987) with my parents. In the chorus of Hawa Hawai, Kavita Krishnamurthy sings, “Bijli giraane main hoon aayee, kehte hai mujhko, Hawa Hawai.” I heard “Bijli ki rani”, and I didn’t know I was wrong for nearly 30 years, till this morning. The mondegreen had always made complete sense to me, because growing up in the ’90s, in every film of hers I watched, Sridevi was simply electric.
As a lifelong member of Team Sridevi, one of the fastest ways to prick the air out of a Team Madhuri opponent’s boasts was to state the fact that our Tamil goddess excelled in double roles — the latter’s Sangeet (1992) and Aansoo Bane Angarey (1993) could not possibly compare to ChaalBaaz (1989), Lamhe (1991), and Khuda Gawah (1992). Sridevi performed a double role in six films during her lifetime and remains unparalleled in her ability to bring those characters to life.
ChaalBaaz was a remake of Hema Malini’s 1973 hit, Seeta Aur Geeta, but what sets it apart from her predecessor’s performance as the outspoken and sharp twin Geeta, is Sridevi’s turn as Manju. In an iconic scene, she is accosted by creditors on her way home. On the spot, she spins a yarn about her mother suffering from cancer — her tearful big doll eyes are now trained on three unwise men. “Zyaada se zyaada log yehi kahenge na…na doodh ka bill chuka saki, na kapde ka, na…aap ka kya tha?” This tiny sequence is not just about clever writing, but it showcases her comic timing, and her versatility when it came to physical comedy — whether it was just her eyes, brows, lips, or her errant arms that were inclined to fly out and unwittingly slap men during dance routines.
In Lamhe, even though her role as Pallavi is brief, Viren (Anil Kapoor) cannot help but fall for not just her beauty, or grace, but her candid conversation — often mistaken for simplicity in Hindi cinema. “Jab tum udaas hote ho, toh kya karte ho?”, she asks him. When he says he doesn’t feel sad, she allows herself the tiniest knowing smile. When Sridevi returns to the screen as Pallavi’s daughter, Pooja, she revels in her youth and sensuality, but who can forget that moment when she finds out that Viren had sketched her mother’s portrait and not hers? Only moments ago, she had hugged her doll as she hummed the beginning of Meri bindiya, and in the duration of a song, transformed herself from a love-struck girl into the woman of Viren’s dreams.
In Khuda Gawah, in that nearly 10-minute long opening sequence of the Buzkashi chase, we know it is Sridevi in a male garb, and what an absolute thrill it is when her headgear comes off! Our faces are mirrored in Badshah Khan’s (Amitabh Bachchan) amazement and disbelief, and as he experiences love at first sight, so do we. In both Lamhe and Khuda Gawah, Sridevi plays the mother and daughter, and in spite of the identical appearance of these characters, portrays them with a spirit and vulnerability that is unique to each one. There is no dissonance, no conflict in these performances — we are watching an actor at the top of her game. When Sridevi gives you two for the price of one, there is nothing to do but be grateful and say thank you.