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Sridevi: Queen of the Eighties

Rajeev Masand is Entertainment Editor and film critic at CNN-IBN
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Thank you for the memories, and thank you for the movies, Sri

For so many of us who grew up in the 80s, the passing of Sridevi feels especially personal. She was, to us, Seema, the feisty crime reporter who falls for the invisible do-gooder in Mr India. She was both the timid Anju and extroverted Manju, lookalike twins in Chaalbaaz. She was the heartbroken Delhi girl who moves to Bombay in Chandni. And she was the shape- shifting snake conflicted between love and revenge in Nagina.

I can’t tell you how many times my cousins and I would rewind our VHS cassette of Chaalbaaz and watch that glorious moment when Anju, permanently petrified of her cruel uncle and aunt, becomes possessed by the beats of the tabla and breaks into a rousing tandav that ends with her accidentally landing a resounding slap on her uncle’s face. That scene always left us in splits. It just never got old.

In the pre-internet era, I can swear it was Sridevi’s sensual Kaante Nahin Katte number that ushered so many teenage boys into puberty. Slithering around a haystack, pressing her frame against a glass door, that sheer blue sari clinging to her curves…. It’s funny how many friends will recount at school reunions that it was this sexy song from the otherwise PG-13 Mr India that first caused a stirring in their loins.

There’s a memory attached to so many iconic moments from her movies, it’s no wonder Sridevi feels like a crucial part of one’s growing-up years. Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh remembers sneaking out of school in Calcutta to watch Sadma at the now defunct Ujjala Cinema. “We were Kamal Haasan fans, but we were blown away by this actress who had reduced us to a puddle,” he says.

Ghosh, 52, is only two years younger than the late actress, but the irony isn’t lost on him that he’s been watching her films since he was in school. You’ll likely hear similar accounts from other grown men and women. Sridevi, after all, started acting when she was four.

When Chandni came out in 1989, Yash Chopra made the still questionable decision to let Sridevi sing the title track with Jolly Mukherjee. While no one could dispute her extraordinary acting skills, her voice—even her biggest supporters will agree—was not one of her strengths. The bulk of the track was recorded by the male playback artiste but it was interspersed with reactions and short bits by Sridevi, which were laughable. “Bin pooche yeh kaam kiya, tumne mujhe badnaam kiya,” she warbled in full strangled-cat mode, providing ammunition to her critics and material to humorists.

“She’s no Lata Mangeshkar, but she’s not besuri either,” Chopra said in an interview to Movie magazine back in the day. But for about a year, it was the most popular party trick: who can best imitate Sridevi’s high-pitched, squeaky rendition of the song? I think I came second place once.

Meeting Sridevi in the flesh was another thing altogether. It was at a sweltering studio in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills. She was shooting for Judaai, which would be her last film before a 15-year hiatus. My most enduring memory is of watching her sit quietly in a corner, avoiding all contact with the journalists who’d descended to witness the shoot. Her co-star, Anil Kapoor, happily mingled. Minutes later when director Raj Kanwar yelled “Action”, it was as if something inside her had been turned on. The painfully shy woman who had been trying to blend into the background had transformed into a force of nature. I had witnessed the famous ‘switch on switch off’ routine I’d only heard about until then.

Over the years, there were a handful of opportunities to meet Sridevi, or Sri as her husband Boney lovingly called her. She was always gracious and smiling, but there was nothing she enjoyed less than interviews. Inevitably, the journalist would speak more than the subject.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that she’s gone. There are just too many memories linked around her and her movies. Men still try to get their girlfriends drunk by assuring them that “Cognac sharaab nahin hoti”. And you know you’ve found your soulmate if she responds with another Sridevi zinger: “Main madira nahin peeti, ji.” Thank you for the memories, and thank you for the movies, Sri.