The peak of Sridevi’s career coincided with a time of my life when I was allowed to see a film at a theatre no more than once a year (after clearing the final exam). I would get to know how good or bad these films were from classmates such as Manoj Agrawal and Virendra Kumar Sharma. There used to be a Sunil Jain in the class who wouldn’t miss any film. Since there was no cinema hall in the neighbourhood I lived in, and my parents hadn’t heard of the concept of “pocket money”, there was no way I could sneak into a show.
The Holy Cross School of Bokaro was pretty conservative, too. In the 14 odd years I spent there from the kindergarten to the higher secondary stage, in a school that had roughly 2,000 students at any given point of time, affairs between senior boys and girls were few and far between. Now, contrast that background with a logic-defying freedom we were allowed that would shock even the parents of schoolgoing children of today. There used to be an annual exhibition of handicrafts made by children and a school fete where we organised little stalls for gaming. Any kind of film music could be played on these occasions inside the school premises. And my introduction to Sridevi was this song played at one of the stalls: Ek aankh maaroon to purdah hatt jaaye! Neither the nuns nor the married teachers in our school raised an objection to the lyrics as Indivar’s words, Bappi Lahiri’s music and Kishore Kumar-Asha Bhosle’s voices reverberated in the school compound.
In the following months, Jeetendra-Sridevi-Jayaprada movie songs tested the tolerance of the then orthodox society even more. Double entendre became the mainstay of these Hyderabad-made films. At the seventh or eighth grade in school, we could easily get the innuendo in “Jhopdi men charpai”, for example.
I hadn’t seen Sridevi yet on screen. When a theatre made Tohfa return for a repeat show a year later, some women in the neighbourhood tempted my mother to go figure out who was more beautiful: Sridevi or Jayaprada. I was not convinced any face could look prettier than Hema Malini’s in Abhinetri, a film of 1970 with Shashi Kapoor that I had caught up with on Doordarshan. Photos in some film magazines made Sridevi look like a distant cousin of Hema. The nose hadn’t gone under the knife yet. Anyway, we caught up with Tohfa and my parents, sitting next to me in that dingy theatre in a place called Chas, were thoroughly embarrassed by the premarital affair of the characters played by Jeetendra and Sridevi in the film.
The 1980s were a decade of what I call four-film wonders. Jeetendra, Mithun Chakraborty and Dharmendra gave us four hits in a row each in different phases of that decade, each time provoking a speculation in film magazines whether Amitabh Bachchan would be dethroned! But, among the women in the trade, Sridevi had turned the undisputed queen. Every other lead actress would either play the second fiddle in a love triangle or be just a has-been. For a change that would continue in the era of Madhuri Dixit after her, people would inquire who was featured opposite Sridevi rather than ask, “Heroine kaun hai?” That, to me, was the greatest achievement of Sridevi.
She had a huge advantage over Madhuri who replaced her as the decade drew to a close with Tezaab‘s Ek Do Teen. A Kathak dancer cannot compete with a Bharatanatyam counterpart in abhinaya. But Sridevi had a massive disadvantage, too. In all those years in the Hindi film world, she remained uncomfortable delivering words in Hindi. The accent and the diction of the Tamilian were as awful as the Bengali Rakhis.
In hindsight when people comment about Sridevi’s ‘fat’, I do not quite relate to it, though. Anorexia or emaciation was not the norm among girls till the 1980s. Beauty was about how pretty the face was. After a few initial flicks with Jeetendra, Sridevi had stopped flaunting both her cleavage and thighs to become one of the most ‘covered’ actresses of all times in Bollywood. Even when reporters would poke her, saying Madhuri was doing better, Sridevi remained wholly draped in saris, not even displaying the navel, film after film with Anil Kapoor. Desperation never got the better of her as she aged in the 1990s, finally to retire, having gotten married to his co-star’s much-married elder brother.
I recall a funny refrain Sridevi would come up with whenever asked about a hit of Madhuri: “I haven’t seen the film. Ask my mother.”
And finally, she turned her awkwardness with languages into an advantage in English-Vinglish early in this decade. It could well have been Hindi-Vindi. The film Mom had a provocative promo, but I gave it a miss because the storyline sounded like a repeat of a film that had featured Raveena Tandon.
The news of Sridevi’s death came as a shock this morning. Cardiac arrest or whatever, the uncertainty of tomorrow makes all these plans for the future an exercise in futility. Thankfully for her daughters, they are now not too young to gather the pieces of life for their onward journey. One of them could make people relive what the mother was once upon a time. There is a section of the audience that looks forward to that genre.