Well, she was just 17,
You know what I mean,
And the way she looked
Was way beyond compare...”
Lennon and McCartney’s immortal lyrics apply equally well to Sridevi. She donned the greasepaint at the tender age of four for M.A. Thirumugham’s devotional Thunaivan. Her breakthrough role as an adult was at 13 in Bharathiraja’s 16 Vayathinile, alongside Kamalahaasan and Rajnikanth. Thus, at 17, in 1980, Sridevi was already something of a veteran. That year, the actress had a staggering 20 releases in Tamil and Telugu. Of these the ones that have stood the test of time are J. Mahendran’s Johnny and K. Balachander’s Varumayin Niram Sigappu. Though Johnny revolves around Rajnikanth in the double roles of a conman and a hair stylist, Sridevi has a powerful part as a renowned singer who touches both lives. Ilaiyaraja was in his pomp and Sridevi gets to lip-sync classics like Kaatril Endhan Geetham, Oru Iniya Manadhu and En Vaanile Ore Vennila. Varumayin Niram Sigappu is Balachander’s peerless treatise on unemployment and the focal point is Kamalahaasan who is desperately looking for a job, any job. Sridevi plays his girlfriend and one of the highlights of the film is the great M.S. Viswanathan’s Chippi Irukkuthu duet between the pair in sawaal jawaab style. At 17, then, Sridevi had finally shed her puppy fat and had gone from being a child-woman to a woman who would dominate screens across India for years to come.
Like Sridevi, Kamalahaasan too debuted as a child actor. The precocious six-year-old caught the eye of studio moghul A.V. Meiyappa Chettiar when he did barnstorming impressions of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan and sang a song from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi and he was cast in A. Bhimsingh’s Kalathur Kannamma (1960) alongside Gemini Ganesan and Savitri. Again, at 17, it was K. Balachander who had an influence on his career. “Kamal is a self-made man,” says Balachander. “He has been in the industry from a very young age. And he was always about cinema, cinema, cinema. He also had lot of opportunities. And he was very good in all those children’s roles. But after a certain time, till he attained puberty, it is a very difficult period for such boys. But in the meanwhile, he has studied cinema, even though he is a school dropout. He was totally preparing himself for an onslaught on cinema. Gemini Ganesan brought him along one day and said that this was the little boy from Kalathur Kannamma. I told him that he hasn’t lost his boyish looks. Let him wait for sometime and I’ll take him.” The adult role would come with Balachander’s Arangetram, when Kamalahaasan was 19, but in the meantime, when he was 17, he worked on Balachander’s Tamil film Nootrukku Noor (1971) as an assistant director, assistant choreographer and a fleeting acting part as a college student. In 1971, Kamalahaasan was also an assistant choreographer on the Tamil films Annai Velankanni and Savaale Samaali and the Telugu film Shrimantudu.
When Rajnikanth was 17, in 1967, he wasn’t Rajnikanth at all. He was Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, a teenager in Bangalore acting in plays. He would not become Rajnikanth for eight more years when he was discovered by Balachander and cast in Apoorva Raagangal. Shivaji Rao’s connection to the movies at that age consisted of watching them. He was a big fan of Kannada star Dr Rajkumar and Sivaji Ganesan and would spend hours in front of the mirror imitating them after watching their movies. There was plenty for young Shivaji Rao to choose from. Dr Rajkumar had 12 releases in 1967 and Sivaji Ganesan eight. The year also saw the release of Thunaivan, the debut of Sridevi who would go on to act in several films with Rajinikanth.
Naman Ramachandran’s biography of Rajnikanth will be released in Decembe.
Edited Sunday, October 28, 2012: The print version of this article, as well as the version published here originally, wrongly mentioned Sridevi's film debut at age four in A.P. Nagarajan’s mythological Kandan Karunai. This has now been corrected to M.A. Thirumugham’s devotional Thunaivan.