Sridevi (1963-2018), whose real name was Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan never went back to her real name after she stepped into films at the tender age of four, never having gone to school, much less, to college. The name and the person who stripped herself of that identity to slip into another one, called Sridevi – Sri meaning beautiful and Devi standing for Goddess, became a living icon of the Indian screen striding five languages, crossing cultures, and seamlessly stepping into the hearts of millions of fans who came in large numbers to catch a tiny glimpse of her on her last journey. She is the only Indian female actor who was as successful as a mainstream actor as she was popular among critics who continued to be fascinated by her performances, though initially, most of them were puerile, masala films that will never find a place in the archives of good Indian cinema. She could make the weirdest of costumes look graceful on her, and could turn the popular conception of the sati savitri image on its head.
Among the approximately 300 feature films she worked in, it would be really tough to select her best because there were so many. She was a great actor with amazing versatility, and a fabulous dancer who made even mainstream dance numbers appear extremely entertaining and attractive. Directors she worked with were intelligent enough to see that her talent as a dancer was taken full advantage of, which made her an absolute delight to watch. Sridevi could emote with her eyes, winking, wide-open eyes registering surprise, confusion, shock, fear, amazement, or go cross-eyed within the batting of an eye, with equal ease. Her mesmerising screen appearance, and her ability to carry anything and everything across with absolute conviction, were qualities that find no parallel among her peers and successors.
Such a long journey
She began her fifty-year-plus journey through Indian cinema at the tender age of four when she did not even understand what she was really doing, why, and how. She was once asked whether she missed school like other children and also missed playing like kids of her age did. Her response was, in essence, dramatic. She said she did not miss school because she had never gone to school, but she did miss playing like other kids only because she saw them at play wondering why she was not with them. But she never expressed regret for missing all that normal children enjoyed. But then, why would she? She was an extraordinary kid in every respect. If you catch snatches of her performance as a child actor in the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Kundan Karwai (1967), you would know. The four-year-old kid admirably portrayed the role of the child Muruga, a famous deity of the South. Another notable film was the MGR–Jayalalitha starrer Nam Naadu (1969).
Her debut into Hindi cinema in Solva Saawan turned out to be a disaster. This was strange because it was the Hindi version of Bharathiraja’s debut film 16 Vayathinile (1977) which turned Sridevi into an iconic star in mainstream Tamil cinema, and was a thumping box office hit. She played the female lead opposite two giants Kamal Hassan and Rajnikant who were paired with her in umpteen films in the South, most of them big hits. When Solva Saavan flopped, Sridevi went back to make it bigger in Tamil cinema between 1979 and 1983. She simultaneously did Telugu films opposite N.T. Rama Rao and Krishna, averaging around 15 films a year between Tamil and Telugu films. She also did a spate of Malayalam films between 1976 and 1978 making her one of South Indian cinema’s busiest actors. No one noticed her performance as the younger sister of Lakshmi in the Hindi film Julie because she had a marginal role, and the screen space was dominated by Lakshmi. But she turned the tables on the mass audience of Hindi cinema in India with films like – Himmatwala, Tohfa, Mawaali, Justice Chowdhury Akalmand, NayaKadam, Balidan, Judaii, Ram Avtar, Laadla, Nagina, Laddla, Lamhe, Chandramukhi, Gumrah, Khuda Gawah, Banjaran, Rooop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, Army, among many others, which dubbed her the First Female Superstar of Indian Cinema.
Himmatwala (1983) changed the course of her destiny. The song-dance number with Jeetendra that went Naino mein sapna, sapno mein sajana, sajana pe dil aa gaya cinematographed against a huge assemblage of colourful pots in a never-ending field became an all-time hit. Jeetendra was a hit hero at the time but in this duet, she proved who, between the two, was the better dancer. In Tohfa (1984) she was pitted against Jayaprada, also an excellent dancer and had Jeetendra as her hero caught between these two beautiful women. The film was a pure entertainer. The title song was picturised on Jayaprada and Jeetendra, but Sridevi expressed herself through the number Dhintara dhintara dhintara, mere nazaron ne mara.
Sadma (1983) changed our perception of Sridevi as the ideal leading lady for commercial films. It is among the best performances that demanded of her to play the role of a young girl whose mental faculties are reduced to that of a six-seven-year-old girl as the result of an accident. Her entire journey is mapped through the young teacher (Kamal Hassan) who rescues her from a brothel and brings her to his grandmother’s home to take care of her and bring her back to normalcy. Though Kamal Hasan bagged the National Award as Best Actor, on hindsight, one feels Sridevi deserved it too. Her childlike behaviour, her giggles and shrugs, her completely oblivious approach to her way of dress and her body language kept the audience spellbound. Sadly, the film turned out to be flop.
Dozens of films that showcased Sridevi in off-beat roles within absolutely mainstream films will open a new window to the theory that a commercially successful star cannot necessarily be a classic actress at the same time. Let us just briefly glide through this journey – Lamhe, Nagina, Chaalbaz, Chandni, Judaai, Laadla, Gumrah, GairKanooni in which she upturned the theory that mainstream Hindi cinema was dominated by the hero because she managed to hold on to her own in male-dominated films through the characters she portrayed as well as through the sheer brilliance of her performance. How many actresses can make a comeback like Sridevi did after 15 years, with a sterling performance in English-Vinglish and then Mom? Did I say “good” Indian cinema? Sridevi redefined this term and one can never forget that.