When the news broke that Sridevi had died of a sudden cardiac arrest at a young age of 54 , the first feeling was shock. Whatever the reason, the sudden death of someone young and talented is always a tragedy.
But the life of women actors are particularly tragic. Very often their families control their life, a father in childhood, a husband later. They are the breadwinners of the family from a young age. Making 300 films in a working life of 50 years must have meant constant work for Sridevi. Few of us work that long with a degree of intensity which is required in commercial movie-making. Beneath all the glamour and beautiful costumes is endless hard work.
Sridevi’s life falls into a pattern which is not unusual in Bollywood. Those who begin as child actors seldom grow up to be adult stars. But those that do and they are mainly women, have an unusually long and hard working life. The result is an early exit.
Take three examples of a previous generation of Bollywood divas. Meena Kumari died young at just 38 years. She had been acting since her childhood, very much like Sridevi. She was the sole earner in her family from the age of six onwards. A life of constant work and being ruled by a father and then by her husband Kamal Amrohi took its toll. She became an alcoholic. Her professionalism drove her to go on filming and give her best in every film. She made 92 films during the 33 years of her career. But eventually her liver collapsed. Despite the best treatment abroad, she did not live long. Her film Pakeezah is now seen almost as her life story but that is not the truth. Pakeezah after all has a happy ending.
Another early death took Madhubala, an icon of her generation. Even today when we view the technicolor version of Mughal-e-Azam we are stunned by her beauty. She was a talented comedienne as well as a tragic actor. She was also a child star and the bread winner of her family. She too had a dominant father who forbade her going out to events in the film world. He blocked her marriage with the man she loved. She made over 70 films as an adult besides her films as a child artist in her 36 years. What we saw was glamour and beauty but not the hard slog of working and supporting a family from childhood onwards.
The third example of a child star who grew up to be an iconic actor is Nargis. Her mother Jaddanbai cast her in her own films as a child. She wanted to study and be a doctor but the family needed an income earner. So she was forced into starring in a film as a heroine when she was just 14. Her films were hits. She was the first Indian star to be known in the Soviet Union and Europe. Her film Mother India had the distinction of being shown somewhere or other around the world every day for 50 years. She too died young at 51. But at least she found happiness in her marriage and children.
Why is Bollywood so cruel to women?