“It’s not easy to be an actor. These girls will never know what it takes and how much one has to sacrifice,” she said to me that day as her elder daughter Janhvi threw a tantrum about her make-up. Fan, critic and actor Divya Unny remembers
IT WAS 1989 AND Chandni had just released. She was dressed in all pink and she wore what then seemed to me like a million bangles. Her braid was so much longer than mine, I thought. I was five and it was the first time I’d caught a glimpse of this big-eyed beauty on my box-type TV set. Her expressions told a story, which you could follow even when the TV set was on mute.
Transfixed, I insisted on watching the entire song every time it played on TV for the next few months. I would silently study her moves. My friends and I would desperately try to draw perfect waves in the air with our scrawny arms and make fake moustaches with our plaits. My father now tells me that when Chandni was released, bangle shops did booming business. Schoolgirls would click their wrists together to see who’d impersonate her moves better. They were all trying to emulate the ‘Mere Haathon Mein Nau Nau’ girl—and so was I. For the next five years, I performed to the song at every annual day event, and won every dancing award. The nuns at our convents disapproved of tiny tots dancing to a song about a girl coming of age, but we still did. Thanks to her, early in life I discovered my rhythm, and I wasn’t alone.
So on the morning of February 25th when my smartphone woke me up with a news alert about Sridevi’s demise, I first switched to instant denial. I looked for the TV remote, hoping it was all a hoax. Wasn’t it just yesterday that my sister and I were re-watching English Vinglish (2012), wondering how she did what she did? With fingers crossed I called a close friend to ask her if it was indeed true. We spent the next few minutes silently sobbing on the phone. A part of our childhood was gone forever.
A few icons have bid goodbye to us in this generation, but this one was personal. “It was almost like losing a family member,” a neighbour said to me, with teary eyes. She was right. Very few actors have been able to become so deep a part of the lives of their audiences. Sridevi did that and so much more.
For someone who started acting at the age of four, the arc lights were all she knew. “I don’t even know how to boil water,” she’d said to me unabashedly, just before the release of her film English Vinglish. It was the only time I’d interviewed her, that too with her daughters. I remember waiting for her in the hotel lobby just before the photo shoot for the story. She walked in, on time, in a blue sweatshirt and black track pants. Her hair was bundled up in a messy bun, she carried a massive black handbag and her makeup-less face was nearly hidden by oversized sunglasses. “I hope we’re not late,” she said to me in a shaky voice as we entered the corridors of the hotel. She walked fast, holding her daughters close, conscious of the attention she was attracting. She seemed nervous, and barely made eye contact. For a split second I thought, ‘Is this her? Is this the woman I grew up watching?’
It indeed was. Inexplicably, she transformed the minute she was in make-up and costume, in front of the camera. Her radiance wasn’t an exaggeration. Energy and vivacity had replaced the inhibition. How could the same person be so different on and off camera? We still don’t have an answer for that. “I did not go to school. I did not have friends like my daughters now do. I couldn’t even afford to make mistakes and get punished for them. I was never allowed to be normal,” she’d said to me, with a smile.
What a lost childhood gave us was an actor who owned every moment on screen—from the little girl who played Sivaji Ganesan’s adopted daughter in the Tamil hit Babu (1971) to playing lead roles at the age of 14 in films like Moondru Mudichu (1976) to becoming one of the few south Indian actors to cross over to Hindi cinema and claim superstar status of her own.
Among her earliest co-stars, Kamal Haasan says, “She could barely speak Hindi or English, but it was never a barrier for her. In fact, she wasn’t as confident during the Tamil films that we did together as she was during her work in Hindi cinema. I was a child actor myself and it was almost like we shared a parallel journey, except that she became so popular in Hindi films that she never looked back.” Before the Hindi film Julie (1983), Sridevi had already done over 25 films down south. In fact, she was doing so well in Tamil and Telugu cinema that moving to Hindi cinema was not an easy decision. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do Hindi films, because I couldn’t speak a word of Hindi. My parents and my then directors like K Balachander encouraged me to go ahead,” she’d said to me.
Thankfully she did, and today she leaves us with over 300 films and characters that have immortalised her in our minds. Sridevi was never the one to give us a studied, calculated performance. Her irreverence was her strength and her ability to emote was her biggest tool as a performer. She played the drama queen as effortlessly as the comedian in a scene. Often within the same film she would transform into two different characters, and one could barely tell it’s the same person playing them.
Like in Moondram Pirai/ Sadma (1983) where she went from a normal girl to mentally-challenged person, or in Chaalbaaz (1989), where she plays the role of twins, one a shy and the other an extrovert. She went on to play six double roles in her career, including in masterpiece films like Lamhe (1991) and Khuda Gawah (1992), proving her versatility.“I studied many actors I worked with carefully, but they would never know I was doing that. Like Kamal Haasan. He would always express himself just the right amount, without ever going over the top and it always amazed me how he did that,” she told me.
Her co-star Adil Hussain, who calls her a “complete actor”, adds, “She was the kind of actor who could really represent the Natyashastra of Indian abhinaya. She was the epitome of a true form of acting, as she had mastered all the nine emotions and the nuances that came with them
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In that era, it was rare to have someone, especially a woman, stand out in films that were so predominantly male centric. Shekhar Kapur, who worked with her in Mr India (1987), remembers Sridevi as an actor who’d never give up. “Mr India was about a man who transformed himself to change the world. But what Sridevi did in the film would surprise me at every go. She’d make such subtle yet visible improvisations that enhanced the scenes I wrote. During the Charlie Chaplin sequence, she said to me, ‘Don’t worry, we should go with the flow.’ Only a person who is a master of her craft can deliver the performance she did in my film,” Kapur says.
My own favourite is still Lamhe, where she plays a young girl in love with a much older man. Keeping her innocence intact, she beautifully portrayed the coming of age of a girl who had always been starry eyed about romance. Lamhe was not just ahead of its time, it was also a performance that evoked great empathy.
“It’s not easy to be an actor. These girls will never know what it takes and how much one has to sacrifice,” she said to me that day as her elder daughter Janhvi threw a tantrum about her make-up. She immediately reprimanded Janhvi and got back to the interview. This was 2012 and it was Sridevi’s comeback to films after a 15-year break. When she was pregnant with her first daughter, she took a call. She did not want her children to grow up without a mother. She never thought of balancing cinema and motherhood, as she felt missing time with her children would not be worth it. “Once there was an emergency fire drill in my building and Khushi had just been born. In a rush, I took some important items, picked up Janhvi and walked out of the door. For a few minutes I’d forgotten that I had another baby too. That’s how taxing it can be. So I was happy being a full-time mother,” she said.
Despite the sabbatical, her comeback in English Vinglish made other actors of this generation re-evaluate their own work. Sridevi excelled as a middle-aged housewife fighting for dignity within her own family. Her mannerisms reminded us of our own mothers who’d often faced identity issues at home. Gauri Shinde, the director of English Vinglish, says, “I would be intimidated to approach her because she would barely talk, but eventually we broke the ice. She brought such truth to her character in the film that it was beyond what I’d conceived on paper.”
Her co-star Adil Hussain, who calls her a “complete actor”, adds, “She was the kind of actor who could really represent the Natyashastra of Indian abhinaya. She was the epitome of a true form of acting, as she had mastered all the nine emotions and the nuances that came with them.”
For someone who was usually on such a pedestal in her professional life, Sridevi’s personal life was tumultuous. There were times she was forced to take up films she did not want to. Her father’s demise came when she was at the peak of her career. Her romantic affiliations, including her relationship with Boney Kapoor who was already married, became fodder for gossip. The pressure of staying on top was immense, and she was clear she never wanted her girls to go through it. It was during this very interview that she categorically said she would get Janhvi and Khushi married off before they considered joining films. “I don’t want them to face this industry because it can get very brutal,” were her words to me.
But, of course, something had changed. Till a few days before her death, Sridevi was regularly seen at media events with daughter Janhvi who is soon to make her debut as an actor. In a TV interview during her last film, Mom (2017), she said, “I am protective about them, but I can’t be possessive. My daughters have their own journeys to make and I won’t stand in the way of that.”
She was always known to be painfully shy, but she was never short of compassion for those around her. Her make-up person Subhash Shinde, who worked with her for over 20 years, says, “She wouldn’t say much, but I knew if I had a problem she would be there to help me.” Sajal Ali, her co-star in Mom, has her own special memories. Ali says, “My mother was dying of cancer and I would often rush into the vanity van and cry my heart out during the shoot. The only person who was there for me at that time was Sridevi Ma’am and I will always be grateful to her.”
Having performed for nearly five decades, she has inspired and influenced many generations. An actor friend, Veena Nair, is surprised how she ended up watching an entire interview with Sridevi just a few hours before her demise was announced. My sister watched Mr India just a day before she passed away. Amitabh Bachchan who has done many films with her expressed a sense of restlessness on Twitter just hours before the news broke. I don’t believe these are coincidences, but this was the cumulative effect her persona had on us.
Today, as I walk the back road of Lokhandwala in Andheri (where she lived), I see at least a few hundred people waiting to get a last glimpse at their superstar. After Madhubala and Meena Kumari, who knew it would be Sridevi who’d leave us sooner than she deserved. People here are quiet. They share silent stares, as though aware they have lost something in common. It seems like everyone, from housewives to college students, to autorickshaw drivers to the lady who sells mogra outside her home, are still trying to process her unexpected demise.
We laughed with her. We cried with her. Thank you, Sridevi, for the gags and giggles, for the dances and drama. You will be missed. Thank you for being you.