As hotel staff look on nervously, a few guests stroll by (a little too casually) to get a better look. But the lady who has caused such a commotion appears to have noticed nothing. Leaning against a wall, perched on a marble staircase, she has eyes only for the camera. Striking poses so practised they appear almost organic, Sridevi wraps up the photoshoot in record time.
Hours earlier, accompanied by a stylist bearing bags of clothes and accessories, I had arrived at Sridevi's Lokhandwala bungalow expecting to be ushered into the presence of a star. Instead we are greeted by a simple mother of two teenagers. Unlike her bubbly onscreen persona, in the flesh Sridevi is a woman of a few words.
Dressed in a pair of track pants and t-shirt, her face devoid of makeup, she looks almost fragile as she sits in a corner of her pristine living room. Photographs of her daughters Jhanvi, 15, and Khushi, 12, occupy pride of place as do two giant abstract paintings (made by Sridevi herself, we were informed).
Within minutes, her affable husband Bollywood producer Boney Kapoor enters the room and, after exchanging pleasantries, begins talking enthusiastically about his wife's comeback film English Vinglish, which sees her return to the big screen after a gap of 15 years.
"This is a subject everyone can identify with," Kapoor says of Sridevi's role as Shashi Godbole an Indian homemaker and her struggles with the English language. "There are so many housewives in the US who can't speak proper English but still manage somehow." Already the theatrical promos of the film are out and have generated a huge buzz, going viral on YouTube and becoming a top trending topic on Twitter.
So one would expect Sridevi to be a bundle of nerves. But she is remarkably relaxed, calling for a pot of coffee and getting down to the business of shortlisting clothes for the photoshoot. If there were any doubts about why Sridevi was once Bollywood's Queen Sri they completely vanish over the course of the next five hours. Exceedingly polite yet extremely decisive-that's Sridevi, the consummate professional in a nutshell.
But first, a history lesson for those who came in late or were born in the 90s. For more than three decades the mononymous Sridevi, 49, dominated the silver screen like a colossus, starring in a series of blockbuster films that set cash registers ringing and spawned an army of devoted fans from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
Kandan Karunai (1969), Julie (1975), Moondru Mudichu (1976), Meendum Kokila (1981), Moondram Pirai (1982) and Kshana Kshanam (1991) established her as a star in South Indian cinema before she moved to the Hindi film industry. Her performances in films like Sadma (1983), Nagina (1986), Mr India (1987), Chandni and Chaalbaaz (1989), Lamhe (1991), Khuda Gawah (1992) and Judaai (1997) catapulted her straight to the top.
"Sridevi's effortless acting and spontaneity are the hallmark of her performances. She will be remembered for her dances, her iconic films and her ability to connect with audiences. When you think of cinema of the 80s, you think of Sridevi," says adman and social commentator Santosh Desai. "She was an extremely natural, versatile performer who brought a combination of factors-mischief, earthiness and spontaneity to her roles," he adds.
Stories of her stardom and fan following are legendary. While in Mumbai, we are introduced to someone who calls himself Sridevi's No 1 fan. He proudly informs us that he can remember every date, down to the day, of each of the almost 300 films she has starred in.
"I can't really explain what made Sridevi such a huge star but I haven't come across any female actor with such a huge fan base. Such kind of stardom can't be rationalized," says film critic Mayank Shekhar.
He goes on to add, "There is a certain dispensability in the case of female actors today as most of their roles are frivolous. Their stardom is more about their looks or celebrity status. But Sridevi had a fan base similar to say an Aamir or Salman Khan."
After the photoshoot is complete, Sridevi sits down for a freewheeling chat. She calls her 15-year sabbatical from Bollywood "beautiful". "It has been a wonderful experience being a mother and bringing up two daughters and spending time with my husband," she says.
So what prompted her return? The script of English Vinglish, she replies. "When I met Gauri (Shinde, the director of the film) we clicked instantly. The script really appealed to me. I could relate to the character of Shashi and I am sure everyone will see something of their mother or an aunt in her," she says.
Sridevi admits that the Bollywood she left 15 years ago is now almost unrecognisable. "The film industry has changed a lot. Bollywood is now an exciting place to be," she smiles. "In terms of technology, we now have better equipment, lights, cameras and recording equipment. The reflectors that used to almost blind us during shoots are no longer in use and, of course, stars today have their own vanity vans."
And its not just the level of technological advancement that's left her amazed. "I am really glad that audiences have started appreciating good scripts. Films with good stories and strong female characters such as Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture and Kahaani are proof that audiences are willing to embrace change. Today the script is the real hero."
Many credit this change to the emergence of the multiplex and the availability of better scripts. "You need a decent script to engage audiences today as they are willing to spend money on movies that are not necessarily masala entertainers. Now it is possible to cast someone in their 40s in substantial roles. So it makes sense for experienced actors to make a comeback with scripts that allow them more elbow room in terms of their craft," says Shekhar.
All these possibilities were only the stuff of imagination when Sridevi made her acting debut as a child artiste at the age of four in with the Tamil movie Kandan Karunai (1967). As a teenager she acted in a number of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films but her big break arrived with K Balachander's Moondru Mudichu (1976) opposite Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan.
Though she debuted in Hindi cinema with a short cameo in Julie (1975), it was her star turn opposite Jeetendra in Himmatwala (1983) that made everyone sit up and take notice. She followed this up with Sadma (a remake of her Tamil hit Moondram Pirai) opposite Kamal Hassan. Most critics consider this her career-best performance and so it comes as a surprise when Sridevi admits she didn't really enjoy filming the movie.
"My first Hindi movies were just re-makes of regional films I had acted in (Solva Saal, Sadma, Mawaali). So for me it was like doing the same movie all over again." She says Mr India is another favourite "because it was the first time I was recognised for my acting skills instead of just being considered glamorous."
Another actor Rishi Kapoor, who played her leading man in several superhit films of the 1980s, remembers Sridevi as "a natural" and a great dancer. "She was very hard working and never took her work for granted. During the time we were filming Nagina she was a very shy person who did not converse much on set. It was only much later, when she became successful, that she grew confident," he says.
Apart from being considered an acting machine, Sridevi also managed to command money, star billing (and respect) on par with the leading male actors of the day. This is perhaps why an entire generation of female actresses, many of whom like Kajol and Kareena, have gone on record to credit her as an inspiration.
Sridevi chooses to be diplomatic when asked to pick a favourite from among the current crop of actresses. "It is so difficult to choose because everyone has their own charm. Vidya Balan was outstanding in Kahaani while Deepika, Rani and Priyanka are all so good. Sonam too is beautiful and versatile." But she reserves an extra dose of praise for Katrina Kaif. "Her achievements are all the more remarkable considering she did not know Hindi or indeed any Indian language when she started her career. I at least knew Tamil and Telugu when I arrived in Bollywood."
During her long sabbatical away from the arclights Sridevi says she enjoyed being able to focus completely on her family and home and was thrilled to rediscover a long-neglected passion-painting. She also, for the first time in several decades, found time for herself. Her hour-glass figure and glowing skin are testimony to the disciplined lifestyle she leads.
"I follow a fixed routine. I do power yoga, eat right and play tennis with my daughters regularly. And come what may, I exercise every day. I completely avoid fried and junk food. I also enjoy walking; I just put on my headphones and walk," she says.
"Above all, it is important to enjoy whatever you are doing. If you're happy, it shows on your face. I believe 80 per cent of good health is due to one's state of mind and 20 per cent is down to the lifestyle one chooses to follow," she adds.
Would she ever consider plastic surgery or botox? "No way," she says. "I don't believe in shortcuts as they are temporary and very noticeable. I am 100 per cent sure they must have some side effects. It's smarter to be a little disciplined and work out on a daily basis instead of looking for shortcuts."
And a happy personal life plays a big role as well. When Sridevi and Boney Kapoor, already a married man, tied the knot in 1996, it sent shockwaves through the film industry and beyond. Although Sridevi quit Bollywood soon after to be a full-time mom it took a long time for their extended family and Bollywood to accept the status quo. But today all that is history.
"Love, trust and respect are the three essential qualities that sustain and strengthen a relationship and see it through the rocky patches. Every relationship goes through highs and lows, which we went through as well. But if you respect each other and stand by each other, nothing can tear you apart," she says.
Being wife to a successful Bollywood producer and 24/7 mom means having to watch the clock, but Sridevi says she makes it a point to take out 'alone time' for herself everyday.
"Your children and husband are definitely a priority, but it is just as important for every wife and mother to take care of herself. You have to be healthy and look good for them too. It is a great feeling when your children feel proud of you."
When she talks about her children, Sridevi's usual reserve melts and she becomes warm and animated. "When I was young, my parents used to wait for me to come back from the studios. Now I wait for my children to return from school. No matter what time I go to sleep, I must get up at 6.30am to see them off," she says.
While her elder daughter Jhanvi has been in the news for quite sometime, with reports stating that she will soon make her Bollywood debut, little is known about Khushi.
"Well, it's high time I talk about my younger one," laughs Sridevi. "Khushi is a typical Punjabi like her father and loves Punjabi food. And my elder one is just like me, very health conscious. Like me Khushi loves animals, especially dogs. She is a sensible child and very mature for her age. She is doing extremely well in studies as well as in sports and I am very proud of her."
Sridevi says she plays both the good cop and bad cop when it comes to raising her kids. "Balance works. You can't just be strict or the children will ask you to get lost," she laughs. "I treat my daughters like my friends but I'm still firm about certain issues." For fun the trio like to spend time together shopping and exploring new restaurants in town. "I love shopping in Paris and Milan. And I simply love Delhi, especially the Emporio Mall in Vasant Kunj."
Sridevi adds that there may be room for another movie or two in the future and will make up her mind depending upon the quality of scripts she is offered in the future and the reception English Vinglish receives.
These days she prefers to accompany her husband to film sets around the world. "I often travel with my husband for shoots across the world. It is fun and I really enjoy being behind the camera for a change."
Perhaps she likes to sit in a corner and witness the ambition and maneuverings of other actors before the camera, all these legions of young, confident girls who grew up watching videotapes of her movies at home, rewinding, absorbing her inimitable mannerisms, and later practising them in the privacy of their bedrooms and bathrooms. She may find such adoration amusing or touching, or maybe she just enjoys soaking in the atmosphere of the one place in the world she feels most at home.
But she can't have escaped having reached a quiet understanding of what a long road she has travelled-all those hundreds of films, characters, challenges, locations, lessons, languages, people, paradigm shifts. And now here she is in 2012 an acknowledged film legend, a doting wife, a mother consumed by homework, squabbles, errands.
In the end Sridevi the woman, much like Sridevi the actor, will navigate the world with her own unique brand of humour and common sense that guarantees that by the time the credits roll everything will be picture perfect.
By Supriya Sharma
October 12, 2012 | UPDATED 11:24 IST