IN HER first film as a child star, Sridevi played Lord Muruga. The director wanted her to tonsure, but Sridevi’s mother was hesitant. She felt it would embarrass the child at school and on the hero’s intervention, the director let her wear a wig. Her first Hindi film was “Julie” (‘75), where she played Laxmi’s younger sister. Her first adult role came in “Solwa Saawan” (‘78) opposite Amol Palekar. The film went unnoticed and after almost four years, Raghavendra Rao relaunched her in the Telugu remake “Himmatwala” (‘83). The Jeetendra starrer was a huge success and Sridevi became an instant star. Harmesh Malhotra’s “Nagina” (‘86) made on a modest budget, proved a box-office bonanza and a turning point in the actress’ career. She confirmed her prowess in Boney Kapoor’s “Mr. India” (‘87). Her best performances though came with Yash Chopra’s “Chandni” (‘89), “Lambe” (‘91) and later with Mahesh Bhatt’s “Gumraah” (‘93). Married to producer Boney Kapoor, She is at the moment taking a sabbatical and has a one year old daughter Jahnavi.
In the interim, she has been wooed by top banners and film makers of repute, but Sridevi has stated that she’ll agree only when the role is too tempting to decline.
In a two-decade career comprising 100 films (Hindi), it is disappointing that Sridevi does not have even 20 films to be proud of. Beginning as a teenager in a large family weighed down with the elder daughter's problems in “Julie” (‘75), she became the sweet 16 girl in "Solwa Saawan” (‘78), and later, the innocent villager exploited by a selfish city boy. She settles in marriage with a handicapped husband, her silent admirer. Realisation dawns that beauty is only skin deep. The damage began with “Justice Choudhary” (‘82), a regular commercial film portraying her as a sex symbol. “Himmatwala”, “Jaani Dost” and “Mawaali” (‘83) confirmed the image.
It was Balu Mahendra who made the first chink in the golden cage. “Sadma” (‘83) was about a girl on a picnic, raped and dumped in a brothel and the trauma involving her saviour, Kamal Haasan. It was a heartbreaking performance, but the film rather than be a turning point, led to a series of over-dramatic portrayals. Her films followed a familiar pattern of a woman who dared to dream, but when weighed down by family pressure, surrendered. As the upper-class daughter in “Jaag Utha Insaan”, she is drawn to Mithun Chakraborty and had it not been for the withdrawal of fiancee Rakesh Roshan she would have been doomed to despair!
Once in a while came a spirited role — the mischievous wife of “Masterji” (‘85), hell-bent on seducing her husband sworn to celibacy. The wife in “Inquilaab” is self-respecting and disapproving of her husband’s dishonesty. In “Aakhri Raasta” (‘86), she is protective of her boyfriend's father, knowing he is a culprit. A rare instance of the individual rising above a relationship. This happened time and again. A crooner in “Jaanbaaz” (‘86), she is kidnapped by the hero’s enemies and forcibly injected with heroin. In a dazzling body movement descriptive of the effect of the drug, Sridevi was tantalising and uninhibited. Her charisma was unmistakable in Harmesh Malhotra’s “Nagina” (‘86), where she played an “Ichadhari Saanp”, transforming from a human to a snake at her will. However illogical that sounds in theory, on screen she was magical.
“Mr. India” (‘87) was the first time she played an office-going girl. Seema works in a newspaper office and lives as a paying guest with a bachelor and a bunch of kids. She is short-tempered, but not insensitive, daring to love an invisible man and exasperated at not being able to explain the phenomenon to her boss. She is the ‘hero’ of the film, fighting evil without challenging the ego of her beloved. It was yet another milestone, but again, without any harvest. On the surface, the roles were versatile. A servant girl sleeping with her master in “Nazrana” (‘87), victim of two friends’ sacrifice in “Ram Avtaar” (‘88), a dacoit in “Sherni” (‘88) and a “Nigahen” (‘89). Wooed by Rishi Kapoor in “Chandni”, when her lover is handicapped, she nurses him against extreme hostility, but cannot restore his injured self-esteem. Her frustrated beloved rejects her, to return after a long exile, confident of being accepted. While choosing between two lovers, she follows her heart, but not before expressing her angst.
|Sridevi in Chaalbaaz|
A hunter amongst men in “Khuda Gawah” (‘92), she marries the to return to the prison. The waiting takes longer than intended and in her acute suffering, loses her memory. The daughter grows up watching her mother’s anguish, determined to find her lost father and succeeds. “Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja” (‘92) also about a daughter in search of her father's killer, was a thriller. She plays a thief, robs diamonds, breaks locks and if need arises, fakes seduction. She has no moral hang-ups.
Comparatively, the singer in “Gumraah” (‘93), is traumatised when trapped in a crime by her boyfriend who hides drugs in her bag and is imprisoned. Her coming to terms with the dungeon and her risk to escape, at the end of the journey still trusting and vulnerable. “Laadla” (‘96), in a way, was the antithesis. As the single woman running a business empire, she is autocratic and power-drunk. A mill worker of her company takes it upon himself to reform the snobbish boss.
The woman of substance emerged from time to time. A victim of amnesia in “Mr. Bechara” (‘96), that told the story of a good-hearted doctor who convinces his patient that she's the wife of a widower with a young son. After few questions and suspicions, she surrenders to her destiny, takes on the mantle of a wife and mother with commitment. That is when a skeleton from the past stumbles. Her memory revives and she has to make a decision. Must she listen to her heart or behave responsibly? Like “Chandni”, she listens to her heart, chooses Nagarajuna over Anil Kapoor and everything is forgiven. Not in “Army” (‘96). The protagonist forms her army of prison inmates to settle scores with her husband’s murderer. Hard as steel, in the earlier scenes, Sridevi wears her femininity with equal grace. For some strange reason, the materialistic wife, selling her husband for a crore of rupees to the other woman in "Judaai" (‘97), provokes no contempt. It is because Sridevi projects the character with innocence and humour. Repentant in the end for losing her kids and husband, she goes to the other extreme of donating all the money to charity and pleading with the other woman to return her husband.
Interestingly, she was never the unfulfilled wife seeking love outside marriage, never an adulteress, the mistress or even a courtesan or a prostitute. Untrapped by a social image, she was neither a raging feminist nor a doormat. When forced to play a suffering martyr, she strived for solutions, her natural instinct craving for cheer. Even if it meant seeking happiness by amusing herself!
By Bhawana Somaaya
The Hindu, 27-08-1999.
NOTE: I wish writer/editor Bhawana Somaaya would pen Sri's biography. Unlike other B'wood writers, she isn't malicious, gossip-hungry and has an erudite elegance to her informed writing. Bhawanaji in particular has known Sridevi over the years and has had access behind the scenes. R