Nobody knows the real Sridevi. Not her directors or co-stars, or the crew with whom she spent the better part of her days. SP Muthuraman and Bharathiraja, Sridevi’s directors in the early years of her career, can attest to that. Even now, they say, she’s remembered only by her on-screen personalities – Mayilu, Priya or Shashi Godbole
Sridevi’s onscreen persona had lent itself to a variety of roles. She was Ms Thunder Thighs, dancing onscreen with a collection of pots as accompaniment. She was that goddess in a blue sari, undulating in the rain as Anil Kapoor watched in awe. Even at her most sultriest, there was a cool reserve in her brown eyes. She knew the effect she had on the audience, but she was removed from it all.
SP Muthuraman, the director who worked with Sridevi in Priya and many other films, tells Silverscreen that Sridevi was a very reserved woman in private. She liked to observe rather than engage. “There was this steely core in her that nobody breached. Even though a few tried to understand her beyond her on-screen image, she had defenses so big, many found it difficult to get through to her.”
A workaholic, Sridevi was used to spending her days and nights shooting one film after another. This had been her routine since her days as a child artiste, and she diligently kept up with it till her marriage to Boney Kapoor.
“I knew she never rested anywhere. So I would purposely get a long call sheet from her just so that she could catch up on some sleep. If not for kindnesses here and there, she would have burnt out long back. As it is, we have lost such a fine talent and at such a young age,” says Muthuraman. He feels that her onscreen persona in Johnny was the closest match to the real Sridevi. “In many ways, she was like Archana, the character she played in the film. She was a loner, preferring to be with herself on her days off. She loved her family and they meant the most to her. She wanted that emotional connect with someone else, but that was not to be. At least initially, she was hurt time and again.”
Bharathiraja, who directed Sridevi in 16 Vayathinile, says that the actor came into the industry at a time when roles for women were written in a better fashion. Till then, almost all of them were uni-dimensional. “Their [women’s] problems were not showcased. Their thoughts and ideas were not shown onscreen. During Sridevi’s entry, there were a lot of writers who took on the task of bringing a female voice to Tamil cinema.”
Sridevi became the face of this movement. She harnessed her unique talents to play a variety of roles from the head strong Mayilu to a patient who suffers from retrograde amnesia. Each of these roles, even those in her very commercial films, had a distinct personality. “I think that her first few roles had such a great impact that they determined the kind of film offers she received later on. Everybody knew that Sridevi was the talent. And that she was not here to play second fiddle to anyone,” Bharathiraja adds.
Celebrity can be isolating, and this was the case for Sridevi as well. “It just made her build more walls. I constantly urged her to participate in life and not just watch it go by. She worked eighteen-hour days as somebody else. She had no space to be herself. Even now, after her death, she is celebrated as Mayilu, Priya, as that mother who learns English. But who knows the real Sridevi? Who is celebrating her?” Muthuraman wonders.
He then declares that he was taken aback the last time he saw her. “She looked very sad, like she had lost something. Or missed out on something. It bothered me and I called her up. I told her to start living her life. She told me that she was happy as her daughter was preparing to follow in her footsteps. But I could sense that she was a little lost as well.”
“Sridevi was an enigma alright,” agrees Bharathiraja, “There was no way to figure out if she was happy with a scene or not. She was always a consummate professional. She would push herself to extraordinary lengths in order to give a good take. That made her a great actor, but she wasn’t good to herself.”
You never know, though, he adds after a pause, “Because what made Sridevi such a great actor was her ability to look at things objectively. And, she was never the kind of person who would have shared her troubles, anyway.”
Sridevi Boney Kapoor would’ve turned 55 today.
Featured image: tiff.net