In Balu Mahendra’s Sadma (1983), a remake of the Tamil original Moondram Pirai, Kamal Haasan (Somu) rescues Reshmi (Sridevi) from a brothel. She has lost her memory due to a near-fatal car accident. With no clues about her family and other whereabouts, he puts her on a train to take her to a hill station where he is working as a teacher. Her child-like behaviour caused by retrograde amnesia has made him fond of her, but in a protective, fatherly sort of way. As they enter the hills, Reshmi stops Somu midway to ask him about the tall, imposing trees. “Eucalyptus,” he replies. Then, seeing her stunned reaction he spells it out for her, enunciating the noun this time for her to catch it. Sridevi tries hard to pronounce it correctly but those watching that scene and the film know she will not. For Sridevi, eucalyptus is more than a tongue twister. Forget, for a moment, that she played a child trapped in an adult body in Sadma and before that, Moondram Pirai. The scene reflected her struggle with language, especially Hindi and English. In Hindi cinema, particularly, Sridevi turned her language handicap into a weapon. Throughout her Hindi film career, she spoke Hindi with a thick Tamil accent and audiences lapped it up as “cute.”
But watch Moondram Pirai and you realise how comfortable the Sivakasi-born actress was in her mother tongue. It was both a chief contradiction and highlight of Sridevi’s long and illustrious career that despite her language dilemma (charmingly captured in her 2012 comeback vehicle English Vinglish) the actress ended up working in several regional cinemas. Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, you name it. She didn’t complete her school education and never once regretted it. Once again, the theme of language rears its head in Sridevi’s life and cinema.
Way before Bollywood happened, Sridevi was already making waves in Tamil cinema. The legendary K Balachander is credited with offering Sridevi, who started out as a child artiste in Tamil cinema, her first major break. Only 13, she was cast in the acclaimed director’s Moondru Mudichu (1976) alongside his other two favourite protégés, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. Like most Rajini-Sri-Haasan romantic triangle of the time, Rajinikanth played the louche element, Haasan the good and virtuous boy and Sridevi the damsel who marries Rajnikanth’s widower father to put an end to latter-day Thalaivar’s relentless overtures. Sridevi and Rajinikanth acted in a number of hits together but it was with Kamal Haasan that Sridevi shared the most prolific on-screen collaboration. Together, they appeared in nearly 30 films. So, when Kamal Haasan announced, “I used to bully Sridevi,” during a TV interview you immediately got an idea of the close bond they shared (and still do). Talking to Zoom TV in 2013, Haasan recollected, “She’s a blotting paper. I knew her when she was 15 or 16. Even then, she was ready to learn and pick up.” Balachander had observed in a 2011 chat with The Hindu, “She was a child when she first worked with me. But I found her to be very intelligent. Though she was 13-14, she had the understanding of a 20-year-old. She was a very quick learner and understood the nuances of her character. She learnt on the spot.”
It was in Tamil cinema that the Sridevi genius was nurtured and matured. 16 Vayathinile is another powerful film from the 1970s starring the Rajini-Sri-Haasan troika. Directed by P. Bharathiraja, 16 Vayathinile is billed as a cult classic of Tamil cinema, responsible for introducing realism and rural imagery in the Madras talkies. Long before Anurag Kashyap brought the grim and violent life of serial killer Raman Raghav on Hindi film screens, Sridevi was part of a similar subject in Kollywood. P. Bharathiraja’s Sigappu Rojakkal (1978) is about a twisted businessman who lures women and kills them. Haasan’s Dileep falls in love with the salesgirl Sarada (Sridevi) and marries her. Soon, she discovers his dark side and tries to escape. Interestingly, 1977’s Gayathri, too, features a perverted husband, this time played by Rajinikanth, who clandestinely films his wife Gayathri (Sridevi) in bed. Rajinikanth is a porn filmmaker out to exploit his beautiful wife. In her Tamil output of the 70s, the young Sridevi was often faced with insurmountable odds and dire predicament from which she has to find an escape route.
Sridevi’s Telugu years were also equally successful. She was just as much of a tour de force. Among others, she has the amusing honour of working both with the superstar A. Nageswara Rao and his son Nagarjuna in hits like Premabhishekam and Govinda. In 1991, she teamed up with Ram Gopal Varma for Kshana Kshanam. The maverick RGV has admitted his fanboy love for the actress. Reportedly, the infatuated filmmaker was so “jealous” of Boney Kapoor for marrying her that he wanted to kill him. Of course, you have to take whatever Varma says, especially on Twitter, with a pinch of salt. But in his star worship of Sridevi, he briefly touched upon an aspect of the “Goddess of Beauty” (his words) that forge Sridevi’s image as a rare star who inspires films and filmmakers even at her age. Both English Vinglish and the more recent Mom (incidentally, it released in four languages familiar to the actor, including Tamil and Telugu) were written especially for Sridevi.
The actress has also appeared in Malayalam cinema, debuting in Mollywood as an eight-year-old in Poompatta (1971). Interestingly, she worked with the late J. Jayalalithaa in such Tamil multi-starrers as Nam Naadu and Kandhan Karunai. She also acted alongside Dr Rajkumar during her Kannada stint in the 70s. Sridevi was already a top star before Bollywood came along to appropriate her, giving her a pan-India branding.
Though she was working in Bollywood since the late 1970s, it was only in mid-80s that her Hindi cinema career truly picked pace with Himmatwala – itself a Southern remake. It didn’t take much time for Bollywood to turn the Thunder Thighs into Miss Hawa Hawai. Before long, she was wowing the Hindi audiences with her comic act, chiffon saris in Chopra-scape and “wounded puppy eyes” to borrow a phrase from film critic Baradwaj Rangan.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)