Sunday morning, February 25, 2018 was a gloomy one for all of India’s movie buffs in general and Sridevi fans, in particular. The internet was imploding with news of Sridevi’s death, something which sounded unexpected and implausible. My first awareness of it was through a Facebook post and I dismissed it as another hoax. Unfortunately, as the collective RIP messages gathered on social media, I gathered that tragedy had struck.
Often times the significance or the impact of a famous person comes home only when they have crossed the Pearly Gates. It was no different with Sridevi.
Fortunately, the Queen of the South from the 70s to the 80s who extended her dominance over Hindi cinema as well, with memorable films from the 80s through the 90s like Mr India, Sadma, Lamhe, Chaalbaaz, Chandni, Nagina, Khuda Gawah, Himmatwaala, Judai among others, had stepped out of her hiatus recently and given us two outstanding films, namely English Vinglish and Mom, that suggested that when it came to the movies, she still had a lot of zest in her.
Fortunately, my foray into Bollywood writing coincided with the tail end of her hiatus from movies and I had the good fortune to have met with her on a couple of occasions. When I first met her around 2009 at her tastefully done up residence in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala area, she was not shooting for films or television shows–she had already tried Malini Iyer which had not impressed the audience. However, at that moment in time, she was playing one of the most important roles in her life–that of a fulltime mother and home-maker. During the brief meeting she struck me as someone extremely shy and reserved despite years of public adulation. That she could step away from it all without fuss or regrets was remarkable.
From her point of view, the sabbatical had been well spent, bringing up the kids and dabbling in painting. There was no apparent anxiety about the world passing her by. Instead, there was the air of assuredness of someone with a quiet awareness of her own talent. I recall saying something about fans eager to see her in films and she laughed her famous, childlike laughter. She motioned instead to a work she had just finished, but that was all.
Happily, our next encounter, a couple of years later was when we had her over at the Screen office for the promotion of her comeback film English Vinglish. Everyone had warned me that she was a challenging person to interview, a woman of few words, who only came alive before the cameras to create movie magic.
Well, she turned out to be a surprise. She was forthcoming in her responses, sharing the experience of being back on the sets and working with a female director, a first of sorts in her career and so on. The movie did well and won her several accolades also marking a second innings in public life. Following the success of English Vinglish, she was seen more often in public with husband Boney Kapoor and then gradually her young daughters Janhvi and Khushi joined in. It was hard not to marvel at her well-timed transition.She had waited for the right time and right project. I recall discussing her impeccable choice with Kareena Kapoor Khan, a self-admitted fan who was impressed with her idol’s choice too. ‘An actor’s expertise is as much about picking the right roles as it is about emoting in front of the camera,’ she had said. I couldn’t agree more.
Another interesting aspect of her professionalism and stardom was that she maintained a clear demarcation of responsibilities. When it came to professional matters or decisions–whether it was a project big or small, she would never make a decision without consulting first her mother and later her husband, producer Boney Kapoor. This habit had even earned the moniker of “Ask Mummy” but she continued with the practice, regardless.
But Sridevi’s successful stin in Hindi films was just the tip of the iceberg. Her acting career started at the age of 4 and she went on to act in Tamil film Thunaivan where she was cast as Lord Murugan. She evolved and matured over the years into a fine artiste gradually gaining an enviable command over craft and languages—she worked in Tamil, Malyalam and Hindi cinema and rose to No.1 status in each. Sridevi was quite the surprise package among the rare few female actors who can pull off sensuous roles and yet have a flair for comedy, quite like Marilyn Monroe. Her songs whether it is Bijli giraane main hoon aayi or Kaate nahin kat ti yeh din yeh raat Or Mere haathon mein nau nau choodiyaan hain were a rage courtesy her electrifying performances.
That her superstar colleagues from the Tamil film industry, Rajinikant, Kamal Haasan ( she worked with the duo in Moondru Mudichu and Pathinaru Vayathinile) among others flew down to bid her a farewell along with millions of fans around the world is testimony to both her popularity and finesse as an actor. Haasan in fact, made a pertinent point when he tweeted that her stardom was well-deserved and not a matter of mere luck.
Interestingly from the days when she was referred by the media as Ms Thunder Thighs she slimmed down for her role in Chandni, a film that established her as the numero uno in Hindi cinema through the 80s and 90s. In present times she was as much a fashion icon as any new generation star often walking the ramp for designers Manish Malhotra, Abu-Jani-Sandeep Khosla and Sabyasachi among others.
The last that I met her was at the prayer service held after the passing away of veteran actor Vinod Khanna and we spoke briefly about Mom and her upcoming international project. She was both excited and nervous about the outcome. “I hope people like it,” was all she said in her characteristic shy smile.
Her tragic and untimely demise has but obviously left the film industry and her fans, reeling with a deep sense of personal loss—the hallmark of great artistes. One that Sridevi unequivocally was.