The razzle-dazzle of the glamour world can easily make you overlook the fact that stardom is, after all, ephemeral. In Hindi cinema too, many stars have had fleeting encounters with fame, only to fade out without leaving any lasting legacy. But the case of Sridevi is different. She was the eternal diva whose talent and charisma have ensured her a permanent place in the pantheon of great stars, not only in Hindi cinema but in the southern film industry as well.
A tragic end to the glorious life and career of the 54-year-old actress (she died recently by “accidental drowning” in the bathtub of a Dubai hotel, fuelling all kinds of wild speculations) came as a shocker to colleagues and admirers, the media post-mortem, bordering on the absurd, underlining how vulnerable even the biggest stars could be.
Nonetheless, all the unsavoury controversies surrounding her demise should not take the shine off the phenomenon that Sridevi was in Bollywood and elsewhere. Look at her Hindi film career; observe closely—only a few unforgettable ones. If one were to omit Sadma (1983), Mr India (1987), Lamhe (1991) Khuda Gawah (1992), her Bollywood repertoire looks like a potpourri of commercial flicks, ranging from ordinary to passable, boasting of little aesthetics, poor content and shoddy production values. But how did she achieve such a towering status despite the handful of lasting hits?
This is precisely what made Sridevi a timeless star, now prompting many to hail her as India’s ‘first female superstar’; it could be debated another time what led many to skip out the likes Devika Rani, Nargis, Madhubala or Hema Malini, each of whom shone brightly in their respective eras. But what is irrefutable about the Sivakasi-born star is that she was an actress extraordinaire with a kind of following very few of her illustrious predecessors had. She had an amazing screen presence that made her stand out even in the eminently avoidable movies.
A glance at her filmography suggests that she barely had enough movies where she had the author-backed roles. The box-office failure of content-rich films such as Solva Sawan (1979) and Sadma (1983) at the outset of her career, and that of Lamhe (1991) in later years, ensured that she remained stuck all through her Bollywood career in the morass of commercial ventures that came her way by the dozen, following the stupendous success of Himmatwala (1983). Forced to play a glamour doll opposite the likes of Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna, Mithun Chakravorty and others film after film in the post-Himmatwala phase, she could not get hold of an adequate number of great roles to showcase her abundant talent. But even in such movies as Mawaali (1983), Maqsad (1984) and Tohfa (1984), her wide range of histrionics impressed everybody. Unlike, say Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Rekha, who got to play strong characters in parallel cinema in the 1980s, Sridevi had to remain content with masala entertainers that exploited her glamorous image more than her acting potential.
Under such circumstances, it was entirely to her credit that she rose above the run-of-the-mill kitsch to emerge as an actress of substance, who could not be summarily dismissed as “thunder thighs”, a sexist sobriquet that the gossip glossies of the time had conferred on her.
It was all mainstream, hardcore commercial movies such as Nagina (1986), Mr India (1987), ChaalBaaz (1989), Chandni (1989) and Laadla (1994), that made her the darling of the classes and the masses alike despite her poor knowledge of Hindi. In fact, so effective was her performance in Nagina that it prompted the producers to come out with a sequel—Nigahen (1989) with Sunny Deol—when follow-ups to films were unheard of in Bollywood. Even in her string of commercial duds at the box-office at the prime of her career such as Patthar ke Insaan (1990), Nakaa Bandi (1990) and Farishtay (1991) among many more, she was the only bright spot on the screen.
What remains true is that unlike their counterparts in the south, Bollywood film-makers could hardly understand and utilise her potential. Come to think of it, by the time she was noticed in Hindi cinema, she had already done extraordinary films in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, such as Moondru Mudichu (1976), Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), Meendum Kokila (1981), Moondram Pirai (1982), but such films could never become part of her oeuvre in Hindi cinema even though some of them were remade.
The reason, critics believe, is that Sridevi joined Hindi cinema at a time when it was still stuck in formulaic movies and it was very tough for a glamorous star like her to get any substantial role beyond commercial cinema. “People often talk about the beauty of Sridevi but many actresses who were better looking than her have come and gone. Nobody remembers them,” says film writer Vinod Anupam. “We have not been able to forget Sridevi and her films after all these years simply because of her spontaneous acting style because of which she remained in the subconscious of the audience.”
With Rishi Kapoor, as the eponymous Chandni; Mr. India’s delightful Hawa-hawai; as the demure Shashi in English Vinglish; as Devki in Mom
The national award-winning writer says that it was the failure of Hindi cinema to create good roles for her. “But whatever roles she got, she gave her best and that is why her movies, from Himmatwala to ChaalBaaz, are still remembered as ‘Sridevi’ movies, not those of her co-stars, however big they might have been. Such a feat cannot be possible simply because of her looks.”
Sridevi probably did not like experimenting beyond her comfort zone of commercial cinema in those days. But she did stage a successful comeback with English Vinglish (2012) and Mom (2017) when the trend changed. Initially apprehensive about her comeback, 15 years after her last film, Judaai (1997), she had realised that the taste of the audiences had changed since the 1980s and they were ready to accept actresses like her who were doing diverse roles suitable for their age and image, says trade analyst and Complete Cinema editor Atul Mohan.
Unfortunately, her second innings got truncated under unforeseen circumstances; leaving her admirers and the industry with an uncanny feeling that Hindi cinema had missed the chance to exploit her artistic greatness to its optimal level for the second time.