A fascinating paradox, she may have been down but not out. With 1991 fending towards depression through personal losses, she closed her doors to the world for a while. But her resilience wouldn’t allow her to remain locked away for long. “Please don’t portray me as a sad woman. I have too much to do…”
Even if it’s the impossible, she’ll attempt it once. Like the fur she donned, along with the coolest of smiles. The way she arched and purred with Elsa and Blue Baby, our two Persians. It was only half way through that we discovered, she’s terrified of and allergic to cats.
But…she is Sreedevi and you’d never believe it, would you?
Q: How does it feel to be the reigning Queen Bee (numero uno) for nearly ten years now. The masses literally deify you.
A: Well… (Shyly) I feel quite normal. Yes I know that most people wouldn’t believe that. But when you’ve been facing the camera for over two decades, it becomes such an important part of your life that to imagine even a moment without it, would be abnormal for me. And at the cost of modesty I’d like to add that I’ve had my share of fame and adulation down South, before I came here.
My family also plays a great part in keeping my feet firmly on the ground. But there are moments when I’ve been really transported somewhere up in the clouds. Like for instance, recently I wanted to see Banjaran. I missed all the trials as I wasn’t in town, and finally, I had no choice but to go and see the film in a suburban theatre. It was there that I actually saw and felt the kind of impact that I had on the masses. I was bowled over to see them whistle, clap, shout and applaud every little gesture of mine. They’d wait for me to come on in every frame. I could very well have reached out and literally touched their love, the adoration, it was at that time that I felt much more than a very successful movie star, more than the reigning Queen Bee that you just called me. I felt truly special. I nearly cried while leaving the theatre before the film ended.
Q: Your honest opinion on Madhuri who’s supposed to be the only contender for your title. Does rivalry get to you?A: Because we’re always compared, I don’t want to say anything that’ll be blown out of proportion, or be capitalized on, by a section of the press. But I’ll definitely speak on the newcomers that I’m impressed with. Recently, I saw Prem Quaidi, and I thought Karisma to be truly fantastic. She certainly didn’t act or look like she was doing her first film. Her confidence was remarkable. I also liked Manisha Koirala and Raveena Tandon in Saudagar and Pathar ke Phool respectively. Pooja Bhat has a very different appeal altogether. And even though she’s very western, she’s also very endearing. All these girls are very young, but far more mature actresses than I was when I started out. In fact, given a good script I’d love to act with all of them.
Speaking on rivalry I’d say that it is one of the major reasons behind my success story. I love rivalry. I thrive on it. If it wasn’t for the awareness that there are younger, and prettier girls joining films everyday, I would’ve got fat and taken my success for granted. And the laziness would’ve destroyed me.
Q: Do you recognize yourself, when you see your old films? Your transformation has been total and stunning. Did you ever dream of such success?
A: That is rather rude. I know that I looked very different before I came to Hindi films, but one must consider the fact that I was very young and gawky. Do you know how old I was when I acted in my first film as the heroine? I was only 11 years old! I didn’t look it because of my large frame, but which 11-year-old knows anything about style, make-up, glamour, etc.? Moreover, all the films that I did in the South, did not require me to look glamorous. I had to look very simple. It was the performances which were difficult to do justice to at that age. I learnt all about looking glamorous only in Bombay. And after doing all those tough roles in the South, the singing and dancing routine for Hindi films was a cakewalk for me. I was supremely confident as far as my talent was concerned, it was only the Hindi language and diction that bothered me. But still, I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined the kind of success I finally got. I would say that it is a combination of my talent, luck, dancing, hard work and selection of the right roles. Above all, it is also the grace of God!
Q: Your first Hindi film – Solva Saawan was a super flop.
A: Solva Saawan was and still is a bad memory. I had earlier done the Tamil and Telugu versions of the same film, so by the time I got to the Hindi version, I was bored sick! Moreover, I didn’t know Hindi and I was most uncomfortable working in the alien atmosphere of Bombay. I was missing Madras terribly and I just wanted the film to be done and over with. One vivid memory of the film is my messing up the first take on the first day of shooting, which I’m very superstitious about. I knew then, that the film would be a flop. Secretly, I was quite happy because I thought that I wouldn’t have to work in the horrible place Bombay (laughs) anymore. I thought I’d go back, work for a couple of years more, get married, and go away. But God willed it otherwise. Only one thing worked in my favour. The first of my Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films were all terrible flops, after which I rose to the top in all the bilingual films. So Solva Saawan’s failure was in fact a good omen for better things to come.
Q: You’ve never spoken about your actual debut in Hindi films, Julie, way back in ’74. Or would you rather forget that?
A: Why should I? I haven’t spoken about it only because I’ve never been asked about it. When I did my fist film as the heroine in the South, I also simultaneously acted in Julie. I was 11 years old then, in the film I was supposed to have a boyfriend and I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I was so innocent then. I also remember my mother in a flying rage during the making of this film (laughing). You see I was playing an Anglo-Indian girl, and the director insisted that I cut my long hair in a bob only to look more realistic. My mother refused point blank. But one day when she wasn’t around, one of the artistes bullied me into sitting still and she quickly cut off all my tresses. My mother was absolutely livid when she later found out!
Q: Almost all child artistes like Daisy and Honey Irani, Naaz, Sarika, etc. recount horror stories about having been forced into earning a living for the parents who lived off them. What about you?
A: Yes, I quite agree. Though I haven’t heard the stories of the people you mentioned, I have seen and heard of many such cases in the South. In my case, I was very lucky to have parents who absolutely doted on me. Actually, my father was totally against the idea of me becoming an actress. But my mother was very ambitious for me. Only because she knew that I had a talent which was exceptional.
I was an extremely quite and withdrawn child. But strangely I had this fascinating passion for dancing. The minute I heard any music anywhere I’d immediately start swaying and start to dance, no matter where we were. There are many instances where I had embarrassed my family thoroughly whilst dining out, when any music was put on in the restaurant. Before they knew it, I was up on the table, dancing away for all I was worth. Since my father was quite a well-to-do lawyer we were very comfortable financially. But my mother was very keen that I join films since I was getting many offers from people who had heard about me. But throughout my time as a child artiste, my parents saw to it that I had a basic education, by employing a private tutor. Moreover, my mother was very strict about me working only in a single shift, my meals, etc. She saw to it that I wasn’t exploited even in the smallest way. Basically, it was a lot of fun for me. I loved all the fancy wigs, costumes, jewellery. And I loved bunking school which I hated, only because I was painfully shy and was scared of sitting in a class with all unknown faces around me. In fact, the fear of crowds is something, which I haven’t shaken off, right till today. I was so attached to my mother, that my world was only complete, when she was near enough to bury my head in her lap. I’d do anything that she told me to, unlike most children who are defiant and disobedient at times.
Talking of child artistes, not all of them were as lucky as me. I clearly remember an instance, where my mother and I were appalled at the cruelty of a woman who used to slap and pinch her child into crying for a shot.
Q: If Amol Palekar approached you for a film today, would you do it for purely sentimental reasons, considering that he was your first romantic lead in Hindi films?
A: Well frankly, I accept a film only on one criteria – the script and the quality of my role. If it was Amol Palekar, I’d definitely consider seeing his script and hearing him out. But further than that, it’s only my role that matters. But I am quite sure that if he approached me, he’d definitely have a very good script, because he’s a very fine actor. I remember his performances in Chitchor and Rajanigandha. I’ve also heard that he is a very talented director. And a good director can make the world of a difference to even a weak script. Now, take the case of my own Chandni. The subject itself was very simple. But it was the director’s touch that made the world of a difference. Yash Chopra is a very artistic and poetic director. I am really looking forward to working with him a lot.
Q: Aren’t you tired of playing the glamorous heroine in film after film? What about changing your image? You are now in a position to do so.
A: No, I am not tired of looking glamorous in film after film as you say. I love it! Glamour is such an important part of Hindi cinema, that one just can’t afford to take it for granted. So looking gorgeous in a Hindi film, which on an average has nine songs and a change of dress for every scene, is itself, quite a challenging thing. You see, I’ve had my share of performance roles in the South before I came here. I always wore a saree with my hair in a simple plait. The Hindi audiences have also seen and appreciated me in Sadma. But that’s it. They would like a film like that from me every five years, just as long as I continued with my ‘Hawa Hawaai’. So, who am I to dictate terms to the audiences? I’ll continue giving them what they want.
Yes, there’s one role that I’d give anything to do, and that is one of an actress. I’ve always been fascinated by the potential of the role of an actress. The scariness, the greatness, the loneliness – what a range of emotions!
Q: They say ‘one is a lonely number.’ In spite of everything that you’ve got, have you at some point, wished that you were just another happily married wife and mother?
A: One is a lonely number, but it certainly suits me fine! I don’t mind it at all. You see, getting to the top is not as tough as remaining there. As for wishing that I was just another happily married woman, I’d say that that is the common destiny of most women. Buy how many are lucky enough to acquire my position? You see one can’t get everything in life. And life has been more than fair to me. If I wanted to, I could’ve got married and quit anytime I wished to do so. In fact, my parents, especially my father, was very insistent that I do so. But I’ve never wanted to marry just for the sake of it. I am extremely traditional in this respect. I’d want my marriage for keepsake, no matter what the circumstances are. And considering my position and status, it is rather difficult for me to find the right man.
Q: What if you came upon him today?
A: Oh, I’d quit right now (laughs)! Actually, I’d give all my producers a notice of six months, and definitely quit after that. Who doesn’t want to get married? Isn’t it every girl’s dream, at some time or the other? But I think, some girls have to wait longer than the others. That’s the price I am paying for my stardom.
I wish and pray that I get a husband like my sister’s. He is so simple and down-to-earth, that when he is with us, we don’t feel that he is an in-law. He’s just like one of us. You know, my mother and I don’t have to go about trying to make him feel welcome.
My man should be a thorough gentleman, quiet and very intense. No, I don’t like extroverted men, because I am extremely possessive by nature. I’d die if he was the life of a party and I was sulking in a corner. I am extremely sensitive and I’d feel miserable if my husband wasn’t all mine. No. It’s not necessary that he should be a rich man. As long as he does something, that’s enough for me. But yes, he should definitely be very tall.
My greatest disadvantage is that I haven’t moved around socially. My life has just been back and forth from the studios. So, I’ve never had a chance to meet eligible people. Now that my sister is married, my mother’s only desire in life is to see me married off as well. She keeps telling me to go out to meet people… I tell her that, now it is rather late to do this. I’d feel so awkward that I wouldn’t know how to conduct myself. You won’t believe it if I tell you, that I don’t even know how to dance at social events. (Laughs) The other day we had a small get together at my home in Madras, and all my cousins and I spontaneously started dancing. In 15 minutes everyone was laughing at me. My sister whispered that it would be better if I just sat down. I was doing the same step over and over again! Now, this is what Sreedevi, the dancing sensation is really like!
Q: Children?A: I love them! I’ll have at least a dozen if I can. That’s the only regret I have. Had I been married, I’d have had a few by now. I have a way with children. I am just waiting for my sister to have a child. No. I’d never get fat and ugly after a child. Of course, I won’t live on boiled food like I do now. But I’d definitely keep myself fit by going for long walks and swims. I’d love to look like Neetu Kapoor does today, after children. Speaking of kids, my heart really goes out to all those countless urchins in Bombay who are my most beloved fans. Do you know that, whenever they crowd me, they refuse to touch any money that I give them. All they want is to touch me, hold my hand, or to be given some personal belonging of mine e.g. a lipstick tube, handkerchief etc.
Q: It is largely believed that beautiful women are cursed with unhappiness. There are umpteen cases of celebrity beauties who have met with tragic and lonely ends. Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, and our very own Meenakumari, Madhubala and many others…A: Although I don’t know much about the details that happened with these women, it is a very sad thing indeed. What can I say? I can only pray that nothing of the sort happens to me. It’s all God’s will. I know that there is a supreme force who cares for me, and will always protect me. I feel very secure when I think of God. I haven’t harmed anyone knowingly, so I know that God will never let me down.
Another thing that I want to clear up is this image of me being a very lonely woman. I am not a ‘bechari’. People feel that since my father is no more, my mother was unwell, and my sister is married, I must be ‘dukhi’ [sad] all the time. That’s not quite true. I do agree that after my father’s death, I was very sad. But now thankfully, I’ve got over it. And by God’s grace, my mother is also perfectly well now. I am basically a fighter and will pull through almost any situation in life. My sister is married in Madras itself, so we meet everyday whilst I am there. Besides which, I have my aunt, and her entire family staying with us. We’re a very close knit family and we are happiest when we’re all together. Do you know that we even sleep together. In fact, I am not alone even for 10 minutes in the day!
Q: Your father’s death, and then your mother’s illness. How has it changed you?A: My father was my strength and my greatest security. A quiet and cheerful man who took care of all my matters. I didn’t know how dependant I was on him till I lost him. The shock was even greater because he wasn’t ill or anything like that. First, I was too shattered. I was in a daze for quite sometime. I didn’t even want to work in films anymore. But everyone around, advised me that I had to accept reality and get on with life. What frightened me the most was my mother’s state. She was in such a state of shock that she simply refused to eat. Can you believe it, she starved for three whole months! She kept losing weight and at one point, I thought I was going to loose her as well. All the medical tests that were done on her found nothing. Finally, the doctors decided that it was nothing but extreme mental shock. Now she has slowly pulled through and is keeping very well. It was my mother’s illness that helped me to become strong. I knew that if I showed her how badly my father’s death had affected me, it would only worsen her condition. So I swore never to cry whenever she was around.
I now know that everything in life is temporary. And that no one can afford to take anything in life for granted. I’ve also developed this scare about being separated from my mother for more than 10 days. I fly down from wherever I am to be with her if she is not with me. Another fear that I’ve developed of late is that of airplanes. Especially when the aircraft is taking off. I get so cold and jittery that I put my head down only because I am embarrassed that the others might notice it.
Q: Movie stars live in ivory towers. Don’t you feel unreal when you see a normal woman walking down the street to the grocery store?A: No. Once I get home from the studios I lead a more normal and down-to-earth life than most normal women. When I am in Madras, I wake up at six in the morning only to go to the market with my cook to buy the day’s grocery. All the vendors know me by now. I come back and help in the kitchen by cutting the vegetables, which I love doing. If am not shooting, I love lazing around the house and watching video. And if I do go out, it’s only to have fun on the beach, the zoo, or go for long drives or walks. Now tell me, what is ivory tower or abnormal about my lifestyle?
My personal tastes are also extremely simple. It’s my family who sometimes make me look and dress like a glamorous actress. I recommend hard work for looking good. I use fancy makeup only for the screen. In real life, I clean my face with Johnson’s baby oil and wear only light lipstick. I dress up only for the premieres and parties of my films. Yes money is very important, but what is far more important is how you use it. Money crazy people are never sound or balanced mentally.
Q: You’re the only actress who has isolated herself to the extent of not having a single friend within the industry. Why?A: Yes, it is true that I don’t have a single friend within the industry. But then it is also true, that I don’t have a single enemy here too! I am very reserved and shy by nature. I really can’t help this fact. It’s only now, after so many years, that I’ve at least a working rapport with many of my colleagues. Though it takes a long time for me to open up, I make it a point to wish everyone who I work with before they do.
Frankly, I feel so complete with my family that I don’t feel the need to make any friends outside. My sister is my best friend. This is the reason that I wish to get married and stay in Madras itself. I hate chamchas and have never encouraged them. I am a pretty good judge of character and can make out at once if a person is fake or genuine.
Q: Have people ever misunderstood any of your moves?A: Yes. Recently I came into a lot of flak when I moved to stay with Boney Kapoor. Do you think that if I was having an affair with a man, I’d move into his house with his whole family? The fact is that I am closer to Boney’s parents than Boney himself. When my father died, I lost all my bearings and didn’t want to work at all. My mother was also very unwell and I hated leaving her back in Madras. Seeing how depressed and lonely I was, Boney’s parents asked me to stay with them only so that I’d have a family to come home to after shooting. I’ll always be grateful to them for looking after me as if I were their own daughter. God bless them! I can’t tell you what it meant to me at that time. I also have the highest regards for Mrs. Pamela Chopra who went out of her way to look after me in London, when I reported there, for the shooting of Lamhe 13 days after my father’s death. I am a very emotional person, and these are the kind of memories that I will always cherish.
Q: Everyone marvels at you ‘switch-on-switch-off’ technique as an actress. Shekhar Kapoor for one is…A: I never realized the meaning of this term, till it was explained to me in detail. This was never a conscious act on my part. This has always been the way that I’ve worked right since the age of four. And I thought that everyone else acted in the same way too. If you talk to me about ‘method’ acting, or any such fancy term, it’ll really go over my head. All I know is that I don’t have to get into a particular mood for a scene. I just try to act as spontaneously as I can. For a sad scene, I can never think of my father and cry for the camera. I just cannot draw from real life experiences. How can people capitalize on their own personal emotions? Acting is just a vocation. Anyway, this is just my viewpoint. But one thing is certain. I cannot act if I am not fully convinced about what I am doing. For instance, in Mr. India, I refused to cry in the scene where I came upon the starving children, only because in the earlier scenes I had really hated them. So although I felt sorry for them, it wouldn’t have looked natural if I suddenly started sobbing for them. I argued with Shekhar over this till he gave in.
Q: Why are doing films with Salman Khan who is so tiny in comparison with your large frame. And what about total newcomers like Avinash Wadhawan and Rahul Roy acting opposite you?A: Salman Khan is five feet and nine inches (laughs a lot). Now, I don’t think so. Anyway, that makes him an inch taller than I am. As for him looking younger than me, isn’t it the producer’s and the director’s headache? If I were producing the film myself then it would have definitely been my problem.
As an actress, I have absolutely no preference where the hero is concerned. I am only concerned with my own role and the script. If the makers are convinced that I and Salman can look well suited, then isn’t it only fair that we leave the rest to the audiences?
As far as these new boys are concerned, I enjoy working with them. I basically love my work and I look for excitement and challenges with every film. I am always looking out for newness in everything. I hate routine. Like for instance, although the press has written off Deepak Malhotra in Lamhe, I have no regrets about working with him. It’d be so boring to work with the same people over and over again. Sometimes, I don’t even know who my leading man is till I actually reach the sets!
Q: Now the only thing that is left for you is politics. More so because it is an ex-actress who is now the current CM of Tamil Nadu…A: Campaigning for my father doesn’t make me a politician. I am the last person who should join politics. If I were ever elected, I’d bring the nation down. (Laughs) First of all, I don’t possess the knowledge or intelligence. Secondly, I don’t have the temperament at all. I am too shy and introverted. I get so scared when I have to even talk two words to the audiences at my shows. And frankly, what do I know in life besides acting? Cutting vegetables perhaps! I’ve never been a very bright person. So all I’ll be good at is being somebody’s wife!
Q: Do you dislike Bombay? You always seem to run away to Madras.A: I more than dislike Bombay. In fact I hate it. This city is so unfriendly and cold. It is just one huge maze of pollution, crowds and traffic. After ten years of working, I still feel so lost here. Totally alien… That’s the reason I always need some member of my family with me. Always. Whilst I am in Bombay, all I do when I am not shooting is watch films. The only place I’ve ever eaten out here was at a restaurant called ‘The Village’. And to my great dismay, the second time I went there, the place had closed down. In Madras, you’ll never find me at home when, I am not shooting. I love loafing all over the town. I love Madras, it is my most favourite place in the whole world.
By MONI M. SINGH
Cine Blitz, January 1992