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TBT from India Today: Hindi film industry: Battle rages for No. 1 heroine crown, Sridevi top contender: August 1984

Wow! A major tell-all feature from the archives of India Today. Read up here.

Hindi film industry: Battle rages for No. 1 heroine crown, Sridevi top contender

An epic battle is raging in the Hindi film industry over who will be the next No. 1 heroine. Although there are four relatively new contenders for the crown, the race is clearly in favour of the sensational southern import Sridevi.


August 15, 1984

Star wars, the real-life version, is currently playing to packed houses in Bombay's tinsel town where an epic battle for the title of number one female star rages fast and furious. What adds pace to the race is the surprising fact that of the four leading contenders, three were comparative unknowns till very recently and the fourth hasn't made a film in the last ten years.

Ahead by a nose (quite literally) is a saucy southerner appropriately labelled "thundering thighs" by the film press, and with good reason. Sridevi, as she is better known, is the sensational sexily-packaged starlet from the south whose meteoric rise to the top has rudely dislodged such established stars as Hema Malini, Rekha and Zeenat Aman.

Zeenat Aman

Three years ago, the skimpily-clad Sridevi gyrated onto the Hindi screen in a soap opera called Himmatwala. The role called for little more than doing a female impersonation of John Travolta opposite the ideal partner, 'Jumping Jack' Jeetendra. It was an explosive formula and the crowds loved every writhe and wriggle. And, the louder the wolf-whistles, the louder the ringing of the cash registers.

Today, a nose job later, Sridevi is the most sought-after actress in Bombay with a string of box office hits behind her and some juicy parts waiting in the wings. In a business where the number one spot is decided largely on the basis of the fee a star gets per film, Sridevi undoubtedly rules the female roost with her asking price reportedly in the proximity of Rs 12 lakh, a figure that even Hema and Rekha were unable to command at the peak of their careers.

Hot on Sridevi's heels, or rather thighs is another import from the ever-productive southern film scene, Jaya Prada. Like Sridevi, Jaya was already an established star in the south before making the switch to Hindi films, but the similarity ends right there. Jaya has been around longer than Sridevi; her first film, the money-spinner Sargam, was released in 1979.

Jaya Prada

Also, Jaya is no sex-kitten. Instead, her classic features, expressive eyes and long, lustrous hair casts her in the perfect traditional housewife mould. She refuses to appear on screen in even a swimming costume. Says Vinod Mirani of Trade Guide, tinsel town's bible: "Sridevi is an actress for the masses, Jaya is for the classes."

Jostling Jaya for a crack at the top spot is a surprise contender for the crown, Dimple Kapadia, whose stormy marriage to screen idol Rajesh Khanna has made more of a splash than her first, and till now the only, film appearance in the block-buster Bobby ten years ago.

But her torrid private life succeeded in keeping her in the public eye and today she is confidently poised for a come-back with such promising films as Manzil Manzil, Lava, Zakhmee Sher and Saagar all awaiting release.

She also commands a market rate that is well above more established female stars and admits rather immodestly that her only rival at the top is Sridevi. "I am more beautiful today than when I did Bobby and had yet to shed my puppy fat. Looks are my assets," she boasts.

Meenakshi Sheshadiri

But she will first have to contend with Meenakshi Sheshadri, the 19-year-old former Miss India, whose aloofness and frigid air has earned her the sobriquet of the Ice Maiden. Even on the sets, Meenakshi buries her well-formed nose into a book between takes and her lifestyle would do credit to Snow White. 

Says she: "If the press finds me uninteresting copy, I can't help it. I don't believe in scandals or gossip. And I have no steady boy-friend." But she is a professional down to her well-manicured fingertips. Trained in Bharat Natyam "ever since I could walk", she still takes dancing lessons to improve her screen presence. Her first film, Painter Babu, bombed badly but she came back with a bang in Hero opposite Jackie Shroff and her career graph has taken a sharp upturn.

Significantly, however, the battle at the top is also a reflection of a marked change in audience tastes, a hunger for new faces and new symbols to replace the jaded 70s. In stark contrast to the free-wheeling life-styles of earlier leading ladies, the new challengers, with the exception of Dimple, are paragons of virtue, untainted by the kind of messy scandals that gave the gutter press a reason for existence.

Sridevi may sizzle like a crisp masala dosa on screen, but off it she is a model of chaste decorum. She rarely speaks in public or to the press without first consulting her parents. In stark contrast to her bump-and-grind costumes, or lack of them, on the screen, she is decorously draped in sober saris off the sets, Says film distributor Ramesh Sippy: "It's amazing how she can switch on and switch off."

In a recent interview, Sridevi confessed candidly that despite all the daring and baring she does on screen. her most prized possession was her virginity. Jaya Prada and Meenakshi sport the same philosophy but the phenomenal success of Sridevi indicates that as far as the Hindi films audience is concerned, sex still reigns supreme.

Explains director Ramesh Sippy: "It is wrong to assume that the audience wants the girl next door or the one he can take home to mother. It is the girl he imagines himself with in bed. The girl who makes him feel good." Adds Dimple: "He is looking for fantasy, someone gorgeous, someone who can deliver the goods. Lots of oomph. Acting is secondary."

But judging by Sridevi's success, that may be just wishful thinking. Few film-goers remember that Sridevi made her debut as a demure village belle in Solwa Saawan in 1978. The movie sunk like the proverbial stone. But somehow it only made the star of well over a 100 Tamil and Telugu films more determined to claw her way to the top.

She lost weight, had plastic surgery done to her outsized nose, took Hindi lessons and then displayed the qualities that have catapulted her to stardom; a delightful lack of inhibition in her steamy dance numbers and the ability to make it resemble good, clean fun.


Little wonder then, that she is being constantly compared to former screen siren Mumtaz. Like Mumtaz, Sridevi has the talent to wear the most innocent expression when involved in the sexiest of scenes. In Tohfa, she balanced atop a prostrate Jeetendra and looked girlishly virginal doing so.

In Inquilaab she pulled off Amitabh Bachchan's trousers and yet made it look like a playful prank. Says she: "We (south Indian actresses) are less sophisticated than the Bombay girls, more earthy. I crave love and popularity and I get love and popularity. It is films like Himmatwala that my fans love and so it is those kinds of films that I accept."

In fact, before Himmatwala, Sridevi hardly managed Rs 4 lakh per film. But the hits that followed - Justice Chowdhary, Mawaali, Tohfa and Maqsad pitchforked her into the exclusive top bracket making her the first female star to consistently earn more than Rs 10 lakh per film. Distributors admit that a Sridevi-starrer has the drawing power to gross over a crore of rupees, and till now she has acted in over a dozen Hindi films.

Sridevi's biggest asset is that apart from her raw sexuality she can also act. Down south, she was better known for her acting abilities, a fact that was revealed to some extent in Sadma. But Bombay producers prefer her sex appeal to her acting ability and she is in grave danger of being typecast.

Luckily, her youthful looks (film circles put her age down as 26 or 27, though she looks much younger) and the naughty gleam in her eyes make her eligible to star opposite the older heroes as well as the new crop of star sons.

In her work, Sridevi is a producer's delight. She is disciplined, arrives on time for work and never messes up shooting dates. Her spare time is spent perfecting her Hindi and taking dance lessons. 

Marvels actor Rakesh Roshan who starred opposite her in his own venture, Jaag Utha Insaan: "She takes her work very seriously down to the smallest detail. During the movie she worked till 10 p.m. on a song and dance picturisation then rushed to Gopi Krishna for a dance lesson and was back on the sets for rehearsals at 7 a.m. I wish other heroines of her stature would put in so much hard work."

Not everybody, however, is impressed. Meaows columnist Devyani Chaubal: "South Indian girls are generally not interested in lovers but in buyers, a producer who comes with green notes wrapped in a hand towel is more important than everything."

But for people like Sridevi and Jaya Prada, their current success is also a matter of timing. They arrived on the Bombay scene at just the right moment when there was a void at the top. Rekha was going through a temperamental phase and had become unpredictable and unapproachable. Hema Malini, after producing a baby, had started looking too mature and matronly for most of the male stars. Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were looking to establish themselves in art cinema.

Smita Patil 

With the field wide open, Sridevi arrived with Himmatwala and the rest is cinematic history. For Jaya, the transition has been less smooth. She had a series of flops in 1980 (Lok Parlok and Takkar) and she was forced to beat a hasty retreat southwards before returning in triumph with Kaamchor in 1982. But now both the southern stars have a host of top films lined up with the major male stars including several with Amitabh.

Dimple Kapadia

Dimple, on the other leg, could give them a run for their money if she makes a serious attempt. Dimple's biggest enemy is her unprofessional approach to work, specially when compared with her rivals from the south. Even before any of her new films have been released, she has already managed to upset almost all her producers by refusing to give them any dates for shooting stints. Sniffs Devyani Chaubal: "Dimple has wine, lovers and millions. She is totally media-made. She is taking the entire industry for a ride and is enjoying it."

But then, it can well afford to considering the relative calm at the top as far as Sridevi and Jaya Prada are concerned and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Meenakshi Sheshadri. But that may yet be deceptive. It's a bitchy world behind the billboards and there are any number of young aggressive actresses like Amrita Singh, Anooradha Patel, Moon Moon Sen and Radha all scrambling for space on the ladder.

All it needs is just two flops for Sridevi and Jaya and then the number one position will be up for grabs. And those who don't have what it takes could get trampled in the rush.

Below: How times change; the top leading ladies of Bollywood in 1973

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