Sridevi, who ruled the silver screen in the 1980s,
Sridevi, whose irresistible cocktail of indigenous oomph and gift for connecting with the audience filled up cavernous single-screens and took her to the pinnacle of popularity in the Hindi, Telugu and Tamil film industries, died in Dubai on Saturday night. She was 54, reports said. Pure gold at the box office, Sridevi could also turn out sensitive performances – Moondrum Pirai (Sadma in Hindi), Lamhe and, more lately, English Vinglish to name just three – with equal felicity and feel.
During her pomp in the 1980s, Sridevi was often the film’s real hero. At a time when action was king and brawny men lorded over the box-office, scripts revolved around her. Chaalbaaz (1989), a Seeta aur Geeta reprise, had both biggies Sunny Deol and Rajinikanth playing second fiddle to her. Mr India (1987) might as well have been titled Miss India. And over 30 years since its release her snake dance in the blockbuster Nagina (1986) continues to be imitated by drunken men at weddings.The Sridevi phenomenon in Hindi films started with Himmatwala in 1983. But the Sivakasi-born’s career had begun over a decade and half earlier. She worked as a child artiste with thespians such as Sivaji Ganesan (Kandan Karunai, 1967) and MGR (Nam Naadu) in Tamil films. And aging Hindi film lovers will remember her as the young girl jiving to the track, My heart is beating, in Julie (1975). Her lead debut feature in Hindi, Solva Savan was a remake of her Tamil hit, 16 Vayathinile (At 16), a rare film also starring fellow legends Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. Director Bharathi Rajaa’s venture vanished like smoke in wind, setting her Bollywood career back. And that’s despite a much-discussed scene where the teenage heroine is baited unsuccessfully to wade through water without getting her dress wet. Then Himmatwala, with Jeetendra in the male lead, happened. An essay in imbecility that has since acquired iconic status, director K Raghavendra Rao’s starrer hit the bull’s eye. So did Sridevi. Her rise and shine was part of a great Southern wave that hit Bollywood in the late-1970s and early 1980s. Jaya Prada (Sargam, 1979), Kamal Haasan (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1981) and Rajinikanth (Andha Kanoon, 1983) all found fertile fresh ground but none reached the skyscraper heights like Sridevi in Bombay. Directors such as K Raghavendra Rao (Himmatwala, Tohfa) and K Bapaiah (Mawali, Maqsad) played key roles at this juncture of her career. These movies were aimed to please the frontbenchers at a time when the gentry was being lured away from the theatres by the new techno-toy: the video cassette player. The thoughtful Sadma, released the same year, sank without a trace. But with the passage of time and growth of her own box-office clout, Sridevi started demanding and getting stronger roles – Chaalbaaz and Nagina – to name two. Later she is even said to have refused an inadequate part in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. When Bollywood A listers Shekhar Kapur (Mr India) and Yash Chopra (Chandni and Lamhe) cast her, it meant her conquest of Bollywood was complete. Sridevi became the chiffon in Chopra’s Switzerland. In both Chandni and Lamhe, Sridevi displayed a more expressive and less flamboyant side to her film persona as evident in some of her Tamil and Telugu movies such as the award-winning Meendum Kokila (1982). At the core of Sridevi’s prowess was a staggering range of natural attributes. Her elfin smile could light up a pinball machine. And her eyes could multi-task. They could convey anger (Army, Sherni) or hesitant love (Lamhe, 1991). For her, acting seemed to be like a switch which could be turned on or off at a moment’s notice. She could play a woman interrupted (Sadma) and be both whipsmart assertive or silently submissive in the same film (Chaalbaaz). And she was a rare heroine with an incredible sense of comic timing. Exhibit 1: Her Chaplin act in Mr India. Few heroines could transmit the joy and abandon of dancing like her. Be it the desi Gori tere ang ang mein (Tohfa) or the western Hawa hawai (Mr India), Sridevi brought a bounce and spontaneity to her showstopper moves. That Gori tere ang ang mein, a song where Jeetendra and Sridevi run around a thousand copper vessels has 40 million YouTube views, only shows her brand of sensuality continues to enamor in the size-zero age. After her marriage in 1996 to Boney Kapoor, who had produced her super hit Mr India as well as the super flop Roop Ki Rani, Choron ka Raja (1993), she exited the film scene only to return after a hiatus. English Vinglish (2012), which also became a hit in Hong Kong and England, showed her further ripening as an artiste. Her sudden death has come as a shock to all, especially family and colleagues. But those who paid hard-earned money for a date with her in sweaty theatres will always remember her as a star who always delivered on the promise of a paisa vasool trip to the world of their dreams and fantasies.