India woke up on Sunday with news of the shocking demise of actress Sridevi, 54, who made a mark in Hindi and the Southern film industries. The actress, who was attending a wedding in the family, passed away in Dubai on February 24, following cardiac arrest. She is survived by her husband Boney Kapoor, and children Jhanvi and Khushi.
For more than 40 years, beginning the time she made her debut as a child star, the actress had spun her brand of magic around audiences, charming them with her histrionics, amazing brand of humour and her lively dancing. She was often called the first female superstar of Indian cinema, and rightly so. She picked a range of roles and stood her own even in hero-centric movies. If Shekar Kapur’s Mr. India was about the titular character played by Anil Kapoor, it was equally about her scatterbrained reporter. The hugely popular numbers “Hawa Hawaii“ and “Kaate Nahi Katate” helped cement her position as a star people looked up to.
Depending on where you lived, your perception about the actress varied. South of the Vindhyas, she was known as a powerhouse performer, intuitive to a fault, and honed and polished by directors such as K Balachander (Moondru Mudichu, Varumayin Niram Sivappu…), Bharathirajaa (16 Vayathiniley, Sigappu Rojakkal), Mahendran (Johnny) and Balu Mahendra (Moondram Pirai/Sadma). Once she made the move to Hindi, the nation saw a different side of her. She danced like a dream, was known for her comic timing. The 80s and the 90s saw her turn star, the one who had filmmakers clock hit after hit with her. Even then, there came movies that showed possibilities of what she could achieve if the script allowed her to. The sensitive Chandni and Lamhe showcased a Sridevi who could be restrained and understated in emoting.
The actress made a mark in Telugu too, with films like Karthika Deepa, Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari and Ram Gopal Varma’s Kshanam Kshanam that won her a Nandi Award.
Taking a break from movies after Judaai and focusing on family, the actress pursued other interests, especially painting. One of her works, ‘Thoughts’, was auctioned by Christie’s for charity. In an interview to The Hindu some years ago, Sridevi said: “I started painting when I was in school, and continued even when I was working in films. I took a break once the children were born and got back to it when I started painting with them as part of their homework. Recently, I worked with my daughter Khushi on a painting we wanted to put up in our home. It was fun. I love working with acrylics and oil.”
She was known to be an introvert, but someone who would open up once she got comfortable with people. The goofy characters she essayed on screen, especially in Mr. India and ChaalBaaz, are her, she has said. “I’m like that with family and friends. My family calls me a comedienne. I make everyone laugh.”
The actress firmly believed that acting was a job, a job she was good at. “If you’re shooting for a sad scene, you need not be sad through the day or carry that grief home. I leave the character firmly behind on the sets. I’m not a method actor,” she once told me.
Known to be fiercely private, the actress opened up to interviewers if she felt comfortable enough. Then, the allotted time did not really count. Which is how, a five-minute slot once turned to a 25-minute phone interaction, speckled with Tamizh references. In her words, her favourite films include Johnny, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Moondram Pirai, Moondru Mudichu, Meendum Kokila, Mr. India and ChaalBaaz.
The actress began work at a time when vanity vans and caravans were still an idea in someone’s head. She’s shot in villages, huddling behind bushes to change costumes. She grew from strength to strength, walking fashion runways and selling tickets based on her star power.
If English Vinglish gave you the inimitable Shashi Godbole, she turned into the fiercely protective mother in Mom. She is said to play herself in Anand Rai’s Zero, and there were talks of other interesting projects.
But, the actress, who inspired many to become filmmakers, has moved on, too swiftly, too soon.
We leave you with a song she stars in with Kamal Haasan, her senior in the K Balachander school of acting. Wearing a yellow sari and sharing poetry with the man she loves, there’s a rare joy on her face. The lyrics by Kannadasan seem like they were meant just for her. “Kavidhai Ulagam Kenjum, Unnai Kandaal Kavignar Idhayam Konjum” [When a poet sees you, his heart will sing]. And then, there’s the line “Mayakkam Thandhadhu Yaar? Thamizho? Amudho? Kaviyo?” [What intoxicated you? Tamizh? Nectar? or The Poet?]
We can add Sridevi to the list.