by Bhawana Somaaya
TAKE 25 | Excerpt 33
by Bhawana Somaaya
It’s 6 a.m. in the deluxe suite of Sea Rock Hotel. Sridevi, today’s most sought after female star, is being awakened by the shrill, persistent rings of her telephone. It’s the hotel reception reminding her that another day of hard work awaits her. If only she could enjoy a complete day of rest! Her eyes still half-shut, she squints at her younger sister Lata, smiling in her sleep. Maybe Lata is dreaming some beautiful dreams herself. As a child, Sridevi dreamt of flowers and fairies. But these days, all she dreams of is dates, dates, dates.
"All I see are reflectors and cameras in my sleep," she says. Not surprising considering Sridevi is shooting more than 12 hours a day. In fact, she confesses, "It seems as if I return to my hotel room only to bathe and sleep." Maybe that is why Sridevi wakes up tired. She tosses and turns in her bed, trying to sleep just a little while longer, but she can’t. She watches her mother in the far corner, lost in deep slumber. Her curly hair which has been left loose for the night, seems like a black net on the white pillow. Sridevi knows that she resembles her mother and figures that years later she will look like her, probably even sleep in the same way. The bed next to her mother’s is vacant. As usual, Aunty has risen early.
In a curtain-drawn room, Aunty tiptoes, getting Sridevi’s paraphernalia ready for the day’s shooting. She removes Sridevi’s outfit from the cupboard, fills the ice bucket with Bisleri water and fruits, checks the make-up tray, takes out the vitamin bottles, and finally at 6.30, gently strokes her niece’s head and cajoles her to wake up. It takes Sridevi only 10 minutes to bathe. She returns looking fresh, dusted with talcum powder, wearing a maroon petticoat, blouse with a chiffon dupatta draped over it in the South Indian fashion.
In the quiet of the dawn, the two women communicate silently. Aunty pours out some Bournvita, which Sridevi gulps down while brushing her knotted hair. "She’s never drunk either tea or coffee and does not know what it tastes like," Aunty informs me proudly. "Sri does not particularly care for soft drinks either."
Then what does Sri drink I inquire? ‘When I’m thirsty, I drink gallons of water. Otherwise I stick to milk,’ Sridevi tells me self-consciously.
Contrary to her on-screen persona, she is not a talkative person. In fact, she does not open up unless you assault her with questions. Only seldom does she answer out of turn, as she does just now, while pushing aside the heavy curtains of the antechamber: "This Bombay climate is very bad. My face and arms are constantly breaking into a rash. Do other actresses face a similar problem?"
Her make-up man Bhaskar arrives. He helps her with the cosmetics - the rouge, lipstick and pancake foundation which Sridevi dabs quickly, expertly on her face. They work silently, in perfect coordination. In a way, Bhaskar is Sridevi’s confidant and has learnt, in the seven years he’s been with her, to serve the actress without questions. He has learnt to adjust to her moods, to decipher her expressions. He sounds almost paternal when he says, "If Sri gets angry, she turns violent. She does not say a word, but throws around every single article she finds in the room. During such moments all of us leave her alone." And yet, nothing comes in the way of her professionalism, he claims, neither emotional stress nor physical exhaustion. "Even if she’s had a late night she will not sleep an extra hour because Sri hates being late."
At 8 a.m. sharp, Kukie Malhotra, Sridevi’s dress designer is flabbergasted to find Sridevi ready to try on the umpteen costumes. They are rushed for time, so they discuss her other outfits on the long drive to Chandivali studio. "What do you call that ornament one wears on the head?’ Sri asks Kukie.
"Singoda", informs Kukie. "S-i-n-g-o-d-a," Sri repeats after her, amused by the sound of it. "It’s a funny name, isn’t it? You people use funny nicknames here. Everybody adds ji while addressing people. I’m learning Hindi these days. I’m already familiar with the names of most of the studios... Chandivali, Filmistan, Filmcity. Am I pronouncing the names right?" she asks turning to us.
"Initially I was very tickled to hear everybody refer to Rajesh Khanna as ‘Kaka’. Now I’m comfortable calling him thus, though the name still sounds amusing - ka-ka means crow in Tamil. What I haven’t got used to yet are the studio conditions in Bombay. Our studios down South are very clean and more spacious. There are some similarities. Nobody gives you your lines, the previous day. I’m nervous when I’m handed a one-page dialogue just 20 minutes before the shot. I’m not comfortable with the language and it takes some time to learn my lines. I prefer not having visitors when I’m shooting a ‘difficult’ scene. Fortunately, today she’s only got a dance scene lined up for Ravi Tandon’s new film. P. L. Raj, the dance director, shows her the steps which she copies effortlessly. After a few rehearsals, Sri is ready for the take. An hour later, lunching in her room with sister Lata, she is bubbly and relaxed. Sridevi eats distractedly.
From time to time she stares at her reflection. "People are surprised when I tell them I’m a non-vegetarian, I don’t know why? Is it because of the general impression that all South Indians are vegetarians? I enjoy eating non-veg food, but that does not mean I don’t like idlis. I eat all kinds of food, and I’m hungry all the time. I’ve never exercised or been on a diet. I think it’s becoming fashionable to be on a diet. It’s becoming fashionable to eat boiled food. I cannot fathom how it happens, but my weight fluctuates from day to day. On Saturday I’m fat. On Monday I look slim. I’ll never allow myself to become as fat as I was during Himmatwala, even though everyone I meet tells me that I looked better with the puppy fat."
It’s an exceptionally hot afternoon and she is uncomfortable in her nylon costume and tonnes of jewellery. Each time there is a break, she pulls off the heavy earrings and covers her ears gently with her hands. I tell her that she looks like a little child when she does that. She stares at me disbelievingly, her bright eyes flashing, and then says, "Do you know that a certain magazine said I’m 28 years old and Jaya Prada is 35? What exaggeration!"
As the day progresses, Sri partially loses her inhibitions. She talks more freely, though she still has to be provoked with questions. A constant stream of visitors drop in to see her. A photographer wants to click her pictures. A reporter wants to interview her. A producer wants to narrate a story to her. Another producer wants to take an appointment for a story sitting. Every half-an-hour, somebody informs her that she’s wanted on the telephone. Most of the time it is Bhaskar who answers, since the booth is far away.
Rekha, happens to be shooting in the same studio and comes over for a gab session.
At dusk, more than half the unit packs up. But not Sri. She is required to stay on for a night sequence. She flops on the chair and exclaims, "I’m so tired." It will be an hour before Sri is required on the sets. She stretches her legs on a bed and closes her eyes. After a while she sits up, and smiling broadly says, "Ask me all your questions. Tell me, what do you want to know?"
A little about yourself, your childhood, parents and career?
"My father does not care for the typically commercial films. He prefers me in different type of films like, Sadma and Jaag Utha Insaan. He didn’t want me to become an actress. Before he retired he was an advocate. A sober man, he’d have preferred me to be an advocate too. I was a very withdrawn, unusually sensitive child. Always frightened and I’d react to the smallest noise with a start. Always found trailing my mother, holding her saree pallu in my mouth. I don’t know when and how things changed. An unreasonable childhood memory is of me dining at a restaurant. Suddenly I stopped eating, got up from my chair, walked to the dais where the band was playing and started dancing. I remember I wouldn’t stop dancing till my father pulled me away and brought me back to my chair. My family must have been awfully embarrassed watching me go berserk. But I was too young to know what I was doing.
"Then one fateful day some strangers came home and proposed that I act in a film. My father was offended and sent them away. But they came again the next day, and pestered my mother to force my father into changing his mind. My mother was ambitious for me. And she had her way. The next day at the shooting, I saw Sowcar Janaki. I liked her shimmery clothes and jewellery. My first film was shot inside a temple. I played Lord Murugan. Just before the shot, the director insisted that I shave my head to play the role of the deity. My mother wasn’t willing. "My child has to go to school," she cried.
There were long discussions. Eventually, Sowcar Janaki intervened and suggested I wear a wig. The wig felt funny on the head. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the film atmosphere.
"After that I only half-heartedly continued with schooling. In the studios I worked tirelessly. As a child star, I’ve worked in more than 200 films. Anuraagalao (the Tamil version of Anuraag) was one such film. On the first day of the shooting, the producer told my mother that I was to play the heroine (Moushumi’s) role. Initially, we thought it was a joke, but when the dressman brought the saree and blouse, we knew it was for real. Dasari Narayan Rao launched me as a full-fledged leading lady. Unfortunately, the film flopped. Then Raghavendra Rao signed me for two films. Both were super hits and I had finally arrived.
"On the Hindi film scene, I did Solva Sawan years ago which didn’t fare well. Last year Himmatwala clicked, and here I am. Today, I’m doing about 18 films here and maybe three down South. I don’t miss Madras while I’m in Bombay, probably because I’m so busy. But I feel the need to immediately buy a house. It isn’t comfortable to stay 20 days in a hotel, month after month. I have my family with me so I don’t feel lonely. Except for them, I don’t have any friends here. Well, maybe Rekha. I often write letters to her from Madras or when I’m out on location shooting. We have lots of fun when we are together, though I don’t feel the need to share secrets with anybody. Actually, I have no secrets. I tell my mother everything I do during the day. I think I’m a good daughter. Or, at least, I try to be one. I’ve never defied my parents. When I’m very angry I turn violent, but otherwise I’m quite a cool person. I seldom sulk, and normally don’t cry. I cannot remember when and for what reason I cried last.
Sridevi... "I'm very stubborn. If I've had a fight with someone, I won't make the first move towards making up, even if the person happens to be my younger sister. I wait for her to come up and say sorry. Once that's done, I completely forget the episode. But till truce is announced, I remain unapproachable. During work, I don't like fights and tensions. Jaya Prada and I initially did not get along. However, when we realised that the press was thriving on our cold war, we decided to make up. Strangely, the fights never affected our work. If you see Tohfa or Maqsad you will never sense the hostility. Thank God, we are on talking terms now, no more of those pointless controversies.
My mother was very upset when she saw the Kaamyab posters (She's not Sridevi. She's Radha') promoting Radha. Her point was, `Let them say Radha is the greatest, if they wish, but why drag your name into it?'
My mother is my greatest critic. My father is my kindest viewer. I'm paranoid about holding a film screening for the family. I'm so nervous I can't breathe. After so many years, I'm still to learn to take my family's disapproval sportingly. I brood over it for days.
I feel very happy when everybody calls me the Number One star. As an actress, however, I'm not satisfied. I want to do different roles. I want to do comedy, offbeat roles for small banners. I want to act in all kinds of films, only then will I feel fulfilled. But I don't ever wish to give up masala films, because I enjoy singing and dancing..."
At 7 p.m. Sri begins her second shift. She dos not return to the make-up room until the last shot of the day, five hours later. Well after midnight, at 12.30, when the director finally announces `pack-up', Sridevi rushes to her room, throws off her jewellery, chappals (slippers) and costume, hurriedly removes her make-up, and changes. Her hairdresser tries to brush the knots out of her hair, but Sridevi has no patience. She waves her aside and coils her knotted tresses into a high bun. Her paraphernalia has already been loaded in the car. The director waits outside, to bid her a courteous goodbye.
Sridevi gets into her car and kicks off her sandals. She is dying to sleep, but her bed is still a 20-minute drive away. On the way back, she looks out of the car window at the moonlit night... then reviews her day, methodically ticking off the tasks accomplished. Perhaps this is the only time she gets for introspection.
At the hotel, she stops by at the reception to leave instructions, to not put through any calls to her room, until morning. Room 1844 is no longer in shambles. Aunty has cleared up all the mess, packed all the suitcases. Her mother has gone to sleep. Aunty and Lata (Srilata, Sridevi's younger sister) are almost asleep. Sridevi's fresh nightie, skin lotion, and vitamin tablets are all laid out beside her bed. After a quick shower, she gets into her nightie, downs her vitamins with a tall glass of milk, then jumps into bed. For a few seconds she stares at the empty walls, but when Aunty switches off the lights, she rolls over, snuggles into her blanket...
"I feel both surprised and proud that I have been able to survive in this industry for so many years. In '82, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to cope with the growing influences. Bombay was a new city and a career in Hindi films called for too many adjustments. Looking back, things have worked out well. I couldn't understand Hindi then, today I do. I speak the language fluently and have made friends with the city. I don't live in a hotel anymore. I have a home of my own, eat ghar ka khana. As a person too, I've matured. I feel stronger. I'm calmer because I'm not working. The madness of racing to the studios is over. There is one more difference. Today, I go for shopping to public places without feeling frightened.'
Excerpt from the book:
Star Insights & Attitudes
by Bhawana Somaaya
ISBN 8190135414 / 9788190135412 / 81-901354-1-4
Publisher Sambhav Publishers
NOTE: Excerpt from the book Take 25 by the brilliant film journalist and editor Bhawana Somaaya. A rare look at the day in the life of Sridevi when she was reigning over Bollywood. It's a glimpse into the life of a true-blue celebrity, without the lurid tabloid falsehoods that were so prevalent in the early days of B'wood film journalism. Bhawana Somaaya was editor of one of my favourite film magazines of all time, G magazine, where she also wrote the most lucid prose on Mumbai's mad-cap movie industry, trying to find sense and sensibility at a time when there was very little of it.
I adore her writing so much, she's a category in herself in this blog. Please click on her name-tag below to see other features by her - relating to Sridevi only.