Filmfare magazine's December 1992 cover girl. Sridevi has done a lot of Filmfare covers over the years - many of which we've archived in this fan blog!
This is one of the rare and easily the longest and most in-depth interview Sridevi's ever done with the then-editor of Filmfare, Khalid Mohammad. Many thanks to Sridevi.biz site for typing up the entire multi-page interview.
You stare. In cherry-red shoes, a flouncy vanilla-white skirt, applying just a light touch of pink talcum on her peach-complexioned cheeks, she's concentrating on her image in the make-up room mirror. "Shot ready, Madame," whispers the unit boy. In the time it takes to snap a finger, her impressive face is suddenly active with a hundred, fleeting expressions.....
Pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, anger and acceptance, she glides through the scale of film acting as effortlessly as an eagle flying through a summer sky. That's Sridevi Aiyyappan. A star actress who maintained a steady voltage. From a child wonder and girl-woman of the 1970s to the queen of the matinees in the 90s, her career has been unusually long and substantial. And this is an era when novelty is so much a creed and stardom so uncertain a ploy at the box office, that actresses cannot expect to stay hot much longer than their dinners.
Today, the exploitation by movie tycoons has accelerated, and in the rush of pouting poppets, you have gained fresh respect for Sridevi's staying power. She is still without a peer for her disconcerting balance of watchfulness, sauciness and danger. Think of her and you immediately think of her incarnations of the slithering snake woman in Nagina, the whip-wielding vixen in Chaalbaaz, or the love-crazy Lolita who predator-like stalks her object of desire in Lamhe. She is best in the relentless glare of the camera lights which do no need soft focus or a filter lens when she's on the scene. Her large, hazel brown eyes speak for themselves without any need of technical flashmatazz. Hers may be an angelic, cherubic face that recalls America's precocious scene stealer Shirely Temple Hers maybe a voice with a child's fluting, sing-song rhythm. However, that makes her more intriguing for even while seeming waifish and vulnerable, she delivers amazingly mature and accomplished performances.
Apparently Sridevi can submerge herself in any role - that of a submissive housewife, a teenage giggler, a vendetta seeking Phoolan or a crackshot cop a la Kiran Bedi. Therein lies her strength, this ability to change identities faster than other actresses change their sequined outfits. Predictably, media cynics have sought to find a giveaway weakness, an Achilles heel, but after pronouncing that she's on her way out, have had to eat their printed words. Although her films may have collapsed, her portrayals haven't. Those who carp that she has slowed down, have been answered by the 10 new films she has on hand, including projects being directed by Rakesh Roshan, Ramesh Talwar, Manmohan Singh, Pankuj Parashar, Lawrence D'Souza and Sanjay Gupta.
She never plays Sridevi, She's always someone else. In fact, her versatility is a threat to whoever dares to threaten her reign. While most actresses become repetitive and resort to mannerisms, she has varied not only her roles but the way she plays them - at times with full throttle energy and at times, with expert restraint. She may not admit it, but anyone who dares to surpass her, has tough, almost-impossible competition ahead. Like a topper in a university, who by sheer diligence rather than design, leaves the other scholars behind. Forget maneuvers, stratagems and game plans. In her dogged fight to keep the No. 1 spot, her lethal weapon is her acting.
"Hmmm, you're dangerous" you laugh when she returns to the make-up room. She ignores that remark, you repeat it and she looks at you as if you've gone soft in the head. No bragging Mohammed Ali she, Sridevi obviously saves her punches for the screen. For an interviewer, she's a challenge. For she will just smile apologetically or give you monosyllables in response. But give her time, steer clear of unpleasantries and she unwinds.
However, she is a wary of being dragged into a discussion on Saroj Khan, who choreographed among her other dances, the Hawa Hawaii set-piece for her in Miss (Sorry Mr) India. Lately the dance composer hadn't shown up for a shooting schedule in Coonoor, the producer had thrown a fit leading to ill feelings, complaints and counter complaints. Tradewallahs were abuzz with the news that Sridevi and Saroj Khan won't team up ever again. To that, Sridevi's epigrammatic response is "It does seem to be that way. But the producer (Saawan Kumar) should be asked what happened. Not me" Right, Okay. Because a dance fall out is not the focus of your interest in any case. Rather it is to get insight into this acting machine. More than 250 movies old, she still has that killer instinct to excel.
You stare, look away when she makes straight-on eye contact. You question her because she is the creator and cradler of her own paradoxes. Because she looms large in your fantasy life, giving that touch of exotic and the unattainable to your mundane, everyday regimen. She can be steamy, full of wild abandon on film. She can be dangerous. But doesn't seem to be aware of the effect she has.
Have you ever stopped to assess yourself as an actress?
Sridevi: I haven't. Because I still have a lot to learn. I may have been in show business ever since I was four but I feel that I've only just arrived. For an actress there can be no beginning, no end, she has to keep going, take on roles. I am always playing another girl, another woman. If I was ever asked to play Sridevi, the character would be very boring, no one would go to see the film. I keep to myself, I'm not talkative. But the audience always wants to see a bright and bubbly, chulbuli ladki on the screen. I act spontaneously, maybe because no one in our rush system of working has time for rehearsals.
How different do you find the situations you have to face in real life and in the movies?
Sridevi: Totally different. There just isn't any connection. One is real and other is make believe. Isn't this why they call most of our films... what's the word ... fantasies? I've gone through them so often while acting, a husband, father or brother dies and I have to cry and cry till my eyes hurt. But when my father died in real life, it was different, very different. There were no dramatics, no hysteria. Instead, there was a feeling of total shock, a numbness. I went blank in one fast stroke. In films, perhaps you have to scream to convince the audience that you're truly grief stricken. Perhaps you can do a death scene realistically only in an art movie. But then I haven't acted in art movies.
Why not? Would you do a film with Kumar Shahani, Shyam Benegal or Govind Nihlani?
(Bemused) Before I retire maybe.
You plan to retire some day?
I was just joking. No, I haven't thought of retirement and stuff like that.
What have you been thinking about nowadays?
Of the process of shifting to my new house in Versova. It's small with three bedrooms and a tiny garden. In Madras, our family bungalow on St. Bishop Wallers Avenue has seven rooms. I've always had my own room but I hardly get to stay there. For the last ten years I've been staying in a hotel whenever I'm in Bombay. I leave the room at 9 a.m and come back at night. I feel quite depressed returning to an impersonal room. I call up my mother in Madras, go off to sleep, then the routine begins all over again the next morning. I could continued to stay in a hotel... itne saalon se producers ne bardasht to kiya hai.. but no, I can't keep on living like this. The hotel kitchen does make special meals for me. I don't like too much oil in my food but I don't know... I need a place I can call my own. I need home cooked food. I'm extremely fond of fish prawn crab and lobster. I can cook too.. boiled chicken, vegetables, everything.. but only I can eat the result. Everyone else makes faces.
Do you remember when you made your first face at the camera?
Of course, that day is so clear in my memory. I was hiding behind my mother's saree-pallu. But she said "Pappi, there's nothing to be afraid of" I believed her and that was it. I've never had a break after that. Usually, it's said that child stars have a very rough time. I didn't. But I do remember another child who was acting along with me. We had to cry for a scene and I'd just break into tears. But the other child had to be pinched hard by its mother and it would howl in pain. I played my first grown up role at the age of 11 in the Telugu film Anuraagalu, a remake of Anuraag. I was playing the blind girl and I just made my eyes go blank. I was an obedient child, I guess. I did whatever the director told me to. I was cast as the heroine opposite N. T. Rama Rao, earlier I'd played the role of his grand daughter. I was paired with every senior hero. MGR, Nageswara Rao and Sivaji Ganesan. I never felt awkward while acting with them, rather I felt deeply honored. But they did seem to be much taller than me and I'd stand straight up, so I wouldn't look like a little girl.
Can you tell me something about your family?
Now. Let's see... what can I say? My father, K. Aiyyappan was a lawyer. I look very much like him. There's my sister Srilata and my brother Sateesh. We all have names starting with "S". When I have a child I'll continue this tradition.
Recently, your brother's name was mentioned on the front pages in connection with a mysterious murder in a hotel.
That was all false, completely false. He's so simple and straight forward. He wouldn't be involved in anything remotely shady. The incident took place in the hotel where we're staying and his name was wrongly mentioned. He's a mechanical engineer and looks after our family's factory manufacturing plastic covers in Sivakasi. Since my mother has been unwell and can't be with me in Bombay, Sateesh came up here.
Did your parents ever tell you how they got married?
Yes, my father would often relate the story. My mother, Rajeshwari, was once riding in a car which met with an accident. There was some kind of a case and my mother had gone to the lawyer's where she met him. Theirs was a love marriage. Father was so cute and jovial, he'd often tease her about their first meeting.
He contested the general elections once. Were you in favour of him joining politics?
We all tried to dissuade him. But his brother was in politics and wasn't well enough to contest from Sivakasi. My uncle requested him to contest on the Congress ticket. And of course, he was very upset when he didn't win. I did campaign for him an some other Congress candidates. But I was really scared of the crowds, I would give the same speech at all the rallies. Yes, I have got feelers to join politics but I know I just don't have the caliber to become a politician.
Do you like politician? Could you portray a politician?
Since I don't know any politician, I can't make any comments. I did meet Mr. Rajiv Gandhi once, he was very sweet, a bit reserved. I know I can portray a politician, I'd love to play the role of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Because she was a great woman.
Who else do you admire?
(Screws up her nose.... laughs)
She's pretty. But you can't admire someone just for that. I'd say I admire Mrs. Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
Do you read the newspapers? What do you think of the new U.S. president?
I do read the papers, the headlines. But if you ask me for details of the Jharkand issue, I'd be quite foxed. As for Bill Clinton, yeah, he's good looking, very handsome.
Whom do you admire as an actor?
Sivaji Ganesan. In fact, there's a little element of him in every actor in the south today.
Do you ever wish you'd had formal training? In classical dance perhaps?
I've never felt the need for formal training. I depend more on spontaneity, on being natural. My first take is always my best. I never carry my work home, I never study a certain character or model it on someone I know, because that amounts to mimicking. Anyway, there has been no time for formal training. I've never had a day off unless I've been ill. I've learnt everything on the job, including dancing.
Haven't you ever felt the need to alter your dialogue delivery?
I know it's said that I have a baby face and a baby voice. But I am quite aware of the art of voice modulation. Like I made the mother and daughter in Khuda Gawah sound quite different. But it's no point changing your voice unless it's essential for your characterization. Like I had to sound like a six year old for Sadma and so I did bring about a higher pitch to the dialogue delivery.
Were you peeved by the tag - Thunder Thighs - once given to you?
Ha! No, I didn't take that seriously. It was given to me at the time Himmatwala. I was very chubby then, I weighted 75 Kg. At the time of Chandni, I lost weight and came down to 57 Kg, which I think helped me a lot to improve my dancing.
Whom would you rate as proficient dancers in Hindi Cinema?
Every hero who knows how to dance. Amitji has grace, Rishi Kapoor has style, Govinda freaks out, Anil Kapoor gets extremely enthusiastic so that you have to keep pace with him.
Once you said that you dream of dancing with Michael Jackson.
Yeah, he seems to know the most impossible steps. He is so soft spoken, and he's been working like me, ever since he was a child. I don't understand him, but I'd give my right arm to meet him.
What if he asked you out for a date?
Oooh, no. I wouldn't go out with Michael for dinner or a drive. I'd just ask him for his autograph and treasure it.
How come you're not being linked with any of your heroes nowadays?
Mercifully, all that seems to be over. It's very nice of the press to spare me those fictitious stories. They always know when I have fallen in love though I don't know about it myself. In the south, this never happens. There was an article some time ago in Bombay movie magazine which made me out to be some sort of love machine, linking me with all my co-stars right from Amol Palekar and Jeetendra to newcomers. Really, I didn't know how to react.
Your films Lamhe and Heer Ranjha failed at the box-office. So are you hell-bent to erase the stigma of failure?
I don't know why the minuses are always highlighted and the plus points forgotten. I remain the way I was, I'm not desperate for a hit or anything like that. I act because I want to and leave the rest to the audience. So far, I have never been criticized for delivering a below the mark performance and I want to keep it that way. Lamhe has fetched me awards and critical appreciation. I accept a film because of my role and for no other consideration. Like I did a guest role in the children's film Aasman Se Gira, because it was fun and not because it was commercial.
Are you avoiding the tantalising Madhuri Dixit - style dhak dhak dances?
I don't think I could do the dhak dhak dance. Each of us has her own style, all I know is that it wouldn't suit me. The song was well picturised, she danced well, but that doesn't mean I have to do it as well, I have done tantalising dances in Jaanbaaz, Mr. India and now in Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja but they're somewhat different, in step with what I'm comfortable with. I can't do revealing scenes unnecessarily.
Why do you always forbid kissing scenes, even if they're relevant to the plot?
Kissing scenes are not for me. For Joshilaay, Shekar Kapur did ask me if I would mind kissing Sunny. When I told him I would feel extremely embarrassed, he said "Okay, don't worry, we won't do it" But the kissing problem of Guru was a nightmare. Someone else's lips were used for a kiss even though I had said I wouldn't allow this to be done by a stand-in. My parents saw the film and were very upset. And the director (Umesh Mehra) even claimed that I had actually done the kissing scene. That has been my worst experience in the film industry. I really don't know why I should kiss someone I don't know. Others can do it but I can't. Rape scenes are also a headache though I've had to do a couple of them because every heroine has to. You have to scream, shout, you get hurt because your bangles break. Thank god, there's a slowdown on rape scenes nowadays.
What kind of roles do you thumb down?
Mother roles, sister roles, because it's not yet time for me to do them, especially when there's nothing new about them.
And is co-starring with newcomer heroes a career tactic? For instance, you've signed on a film with Akshay Kumar?
That is 100 percent false. My main criteria to take on a film are the story and my role in it. I don't have a say in who will be cast opposite me. I'm doing Meri Biwi Ka Jawab Nahin because it's a woman oriented role. I have seen Akshay Kumar's films, he seems to be very hardworking and so I have no reason to refuse to act with him. I'm playing my age, I'm not hiding anything. It's just that I have been acting for so many years that it's believed that every newcomer is much younger than me. It seems funny now but at the age of 13, I even played stepmother to Rajnikant.
Once you and Jaya Prada were at daggers-drawn while trying to outclass each other. Is that war over?
We weren't fighting a kushti match or anything. But I suppose there was a sense of competitiveness between us. We'd try to act better than the other in the films we did together. She wouldn't speak to me but all that's over now. She came over when my father died. She was very caring and concerned, it was a very kind gesture.
So you can be competitive?
Not consciously but every actress does want to give her life and soul to every scene she's doing.
So anyone who tries to challenge your No. 1 position had to better watch it.
What are you saying? I just act.
Filmfare, December 1992 by Khalid Mohammed
Sridevi picks her six favourite movie moments:
Sridevi: I'm especially fond of the scene where I start clapping loudly and the birds flutter away on hearing the sound. It's a brief but very charming moment. I played the mentally-retarded girl without ever meeting one. Even today people ask me whether I studied the behaviour and mannerisms of the mentally-handicapped. The credit for that lovely, little scene... in fact the credit for my entire performance goes to director Ballu Mahendra. I just carried out his instructions. But I prefer the Tamil version - Moondram Pirai. The Hindi remake may have been nearly the same but I was new to the Hindi language then and though I did the dubbing myself, I could have been better. Moreover, when you've done a film once, to go through it all over again becomes repetitive and the performance does lose its original freshness.
On hearing the been, my body responds to the insistent rhythm of the music. I had to lose myself to the call of the been, the scene showed me swaying as if in a trance. And as the music rises to a crescendo, my movements became more frantic. Although, it was a dance piece, it was a crucial part of the story. I had to convey the feeling that I was helpless, that I was imprisoned by the strains of the music. To do this without speaking a single line of dialogue was a challenge. So, I just went along with the music and let my body do the talking.
The Charlie chaplin scene's my all-time favourite. I had seen so many of his classics like The Kid, Gold Rush and The Great Dictator on video and of course, like every kid and adult in this world, I'm Chaplin's admirer. To start with, the Chaplin act was just supposed to be two or three shots but when the director, Shekhar Kapur, saw me in costume, he felt that it could be extended to five or six shots. As the shooting started, everyone lost count of the number of shots and soon we had an entire sequence. i enjoyed being in the Chaplin moustache, baggy trousers and bower hat; the kids acting with me had a whale of a time, too. And, I think, so did the audience.
Hmm, which scene do I pick? Okay, there's the moment when the girl wants to buy a bottle of beer in a bar and she doesn't have any money. Then Sunny enters and they start chatting and she talks him into buying her several bottles. It wasn't a very dramatic scene, on the contrary it was quite ordinary. The director (Pankuj Parashar) told us to play with it, extend the conversation any way we liked. So Sunny and I started improvising. We went on laughing, saying crazy things, and somehow it all worked. There's a sweet and naughty mood to that scene. Sometimes, your best moments in a film come about quite accidentally.
I think my performance in Lamhe was much better than my performance in Chandni. I know Chandni was a successful film and Lamhe wasn't a box-office hit but that's how it is in show-business. I have two favourite moments in Lamhe actually - the time I'm emotionally wounded and walk out of the house in England and the other is the time when I'm told by Anil Kapoor that he was in love with my mother. Choosing between the double role of the mother and the daughter, I liked to play the younger lovelorn girl. I felt more comfortable with this character, more close to her. But now don't ask me if, like the girl, I have ever been attracted to an older man. Because the answer would be, "No, never!".
The climax, the moment where I touch Amitji's beard. That little touch was lovely. Before that I had to give a deadpan look, my face resting on a stone, even as a lot of fighting was going on around me. I just brought about a dead look in my eyes, when the camera was on I'd start thinking - when will they finish climax! We had been shooting it for more than 10 days. I was playing a double role again but in this case I preferred the part of the senior character. It was the first time that I was portraying an old woman with grey hair. And the role had a wide range - from the gritty woman who is adept at horse-riding and a caring wife to a mother who longs for her beloved and the happiness snatched away from her.