3 years

Sridevi (1963-2018)

Farewell, Our Chandni of Moonlit Romance

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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She could change expressions as quickly as clouds pass over the sun. In moments, it could change from sad, happy, adoring or scared to surprise. Her huge eyes with long lashes seem too exaggerated to be real, and when she rolls them in silliness, winks in naughtiness or fills them with tears, they are unmissable. She wrinkles her nose and pouts, bites her lip and smiles

I HAVE ONE IMAGE ON the bedroom wall. It is a poster of Sridevi as Chandni, stretching her lovely figure in a white salwar kameez, encased in a pink rose with dewdrops. I have other posters of her, including one of her famous dance of passion with Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna behind her, but this is the image of her that I treasure most. Moonlight and roses.

Shree Amma Yangar Ayyappan, better known as Sridevi, was born on August 13th, 1963, in her father’s home town, Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, famous for its fireworks. Her father, Ayyappan Yangar, was a lawyer, her mother a Telugu speaker from Tirupati. Her mother, Rajeswari Yangar, managed her career, introducing her as a four-year old into a Tamil devotional film, MA Thirumugham’s Thunaivan (1969), playing Lord Murugan. (Thirumugham is known in Hindi cinema as the director of Haathi Mere Saathi.)

Sridevi continued her career as a child artist in South Indian cinema, in which she appeared throughout her professional life—in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films. She made her debut in Hindi movies playing Julie’s younger sister, Irene, in KS Sethumadhavan’s Julie (1975). Her first role as a leading heroine in a Hindi movie was in Solva Sawan (1979), P Bharathiraja’s remake of his Tamil film, 16 Vayathinile (1977) in which she had starred with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.

The gap in my knowledge about this era in South Indian cinema is such that I cannot argue with advocates of each of these cinemas who say her work in those movies was her best. It is plausible, given the limits of her Hindi, but a more interesting argument is made by the leading Tamil film critic, Baradwaj Rangan, who suggests one of the keys to her success is that she learned her acting style here, a filmi or melodramatic style. This meant she communicated directly with her audiences through her emotionally-charged performances that were always larger than life. Sridevi’s romance, her happiness, her sadness, her comedy were all conveyed directly to the audience.

Sridevi’s style is distinctive and extraordinary. A key part of it is her ability to communicate emotions with her face and with her body. She could change expressions as quickly as clouds pass over the sun. In moments, it could change from sad, happy, adoring or scared to surprise. Her huge eyes with long lashes seem too exaggerated to be real, and when she rolls them in silliness, winks in naughtiness or fills them with tears, they are unmissable. She wrinkles her nose and pouts, bites her lip and smiles. Each gesture is immediately recognisable, her often heavy make-up amplifying her look.

Sridevi was relatively tall with a strong body, originally known as ‘Thunder thighs’; she was always slim-waisted yet full-figured. In Western or Indian clothes, she always looked elegant and in later years modelled Indian designer couture but also dressed as Charlie Chaplin in Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987), to everyone’s amusement. In her songs, she wore iconic outfits, such as her transparent raincoat in Chaalbaaz (1989)––actress, song and costume in harmony.

Perhaps her inimitable, effervescent style and often offbeat and quirky costumes were part of what made her songs so memorable and long-lived. While Sridevi’s command of Hindi was so weak in her early years that she had to be dubbed, when Lata Mangeshkar or Kavita Krishnamurthy sang for her, she escaped this trap and could mime to their voices. She was then free to put everything into her performance— to dance, to pose, to move, to emote.

Sridevi’s songs, however sexy the lyrics or the dancing, did not make her appear cheap. She always had an innocence and decency about her, such that however the viewer was positioned to look at her, she refused to be objectified. Even her most erotic dances were dignified and tasteful. Her snake dance for Main Teri Dushman in the film Nagina (1986), which might have been comical if badly done, mixed anger and eroticism in this deadly number.

Sridevi’s beauty and sexual attractiveness was exaggerated further by her costumes, for example her gold dress first seen in close-up on her rear in Hawa Hawai, or the blue sari in which she dances erotically in Kaate Nahin Katte, both from Mr India

Sridevi’s beauty and sexual attractiveness was exaggerated further by her costumes, for example her gold dress first seen in close-up on her rear in Hawa Hawai; or her blue sari in which she dances erotically in Kaate Nahin Katte, both from Mr India. One of my personal favourites was in Mitwa from Yash Chopra’s Chandni (1989), where she held up the pallu of her yellow chiffon sari and swayed as Rishi Kapoor looked on before they danced across fields, then walked arm in arm. In her double role in Chopra’s Lamhe (1991), she appeared in a Rajasthani dress as well as jeans and T- shirts, but her blue and yellow outfit in the desert song, Morni Bag Ma Bole, where Sridevi plays a Rajasthani woman interpreting a folk song to Anil Kapoor, an innocent tourist.

Sridevi was a great superstar, but by no means the first superstar. Sulochana (Ruby Meyers) is often described as the first, followed by many more such as ‘Fearless’ Nadia, Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and more. Sridevi is most often compared to other South Indian stars. We were reminded of Hema Malini’s performance in Seeta aur Geeta in Chaalbaaz (1989), a double role of twins separated at birth, and Vyjayanthimala’s snake dance Mere Mann Dole can be compared to Sridevi’s in Nagina. Although Raakhee’s character in Daag (1973) was called Chandni, it was Rekha in Silsila (1981) who was first presented as Chandni (or ‘moonlight’), Yash Chopra’s ideal of feminine beauty; she was his original choice for the title role of Chandni, but this is one of Sridevi’s greatest roles. She soon became a true Yash Chopra heroine, a romantic idealised woman in her elegant chiffon saris, manifesting grace and self- sacrifice, along with her ability to surmount suffering.

Perhaps it is more significant to note that in the 1980s, the female-centric films were more the ‘rape revenge’ dramas, including Sridevi’s own Sherni (1988), but she also played more fun and romantic roles where she shone even-paired with top stars.

Sridevi’s songs, however sexy the lyrics or the dancing, did not make her appear cheap. She always had an innocence and decency about her, such that however the viewer was positioned to look at her, she refused to be objectified

In the south, she and Kamal Haasan were seen as a perfectly balanced pair, known best in the north for Sadma (1983), and the south Indian remakes with Jeetendra such as Himmatwala (1983) and Tohfa (1984). Rishi Kapoor and Sridevi were well matched in Nagin and Chandni, while Sridevi even withstood the phenomenal stardom of Amitabh Bachchan in Khuda Gawah (1992), her songs again finding popularity far beyond the cinema hall.

Anil Kapoor made a great co-star with Sridevi. Although he played Mr India, his role demanded that he was often invisible and it was Sridevi who stole the show in this perennially popular film. Shekhar Kapur mixed genres of sci-fi and The Sound of Music and gave us one of Hindi screen’s greatest villains, Mogambo, who was so often very happy: “Mogambo khush hua”. Amrish Puri made a great enemy for Sridevi, as he was also in Nagin.

Sridevi acted with Anil Kapoor in Laadla (1994), but by the time Judaai (1997) released, Sridevi and Anil Kapoor’s brother, Boney Kapoor, were together, and I recall someone in the cinema hall in which I viewed it yelling, “Bhabhi par haath na lagaana!” to vast amusement. She also played a number of double roles in her films such as Chalbaaz, Khuda Gawah, Lamhe, allowing audiences to see different aspects of her performance.

The tributes to Sridevi this week have shown that she was an idol for many of the current generation of stars. It is hard to see a direct connection between her performance style and theirs, but it would be impossible for them not to want to achieve the status Sridevi had in the industry as a top star and a favourite heroine. Madhuri Dixit was perhaps the last female star who didn’t need a great co-star to lead a film.

One of the strange features of stardom is that one feels one knows someone intimately when one doesn’t know them at all. While it would be disturbing if someone couldn’t recognise the difference between the onscreen and offscreen person, there is some way in which we are haunted by these stars whom we have often never met. The way in which we know their faces which we have seen magnified to the size of a cinema screen while we focus on their emotional states.

We often feel as we know Sridevi as we have spent so many hours watching her films. We know her performances. We know the stories that circulated about her, but we don’t know if they’re true. We have heard stories that she was unhappy, then she married Mithun Chakraborty. We learnt about her affair then subsequent marriage with Boney Kapoor and about his first wife Mona. We may have our opinions, but we don’t have any knowledge of what really happened.

It’s such a cliché of the film star to be desired by everyone but to have no one. Sridevi might have been seen as one of the world’s most beautiful women, but perhaps she found it hard to enjoy an easy home life

I remember when Sridevi first became a mother, people who knew her and cared about her spoke of their happiness that now she had her own family she would no longer be lonely. I was interested in this idea of loneliness. It’s such a cliché of the film star to be desired by everyone but to have no one. Sridevi might have been seen as one of the world’s most beautiful women, but perhaps she found it hard to enjoy an easy home life.

Even once Sridevi was settled, new stories began to circulate to suggest she was not happy. Her punishing diet and possible cosmetic procedures were discussed mostly in negative terms, but if she had aged like other women, that would have led to a host of different stories. The violation of the privacy of this very private woman at the moment of her death must have been heartbreaking to her young daughters, her family and friends.

Why do we listen to these stories when we don’t know if they are true or not? Is it because it is hard for us to understand a rare creature like Sridevi, so much more beautiful, talented and famous than us? Perhaps we are jealous and think there has to be something odd about them and we can bring them down to our level? Perhaps we wish to divert attention from our own life stories, which may be dull but could look odd and incomprehensible under such scrutiny. More likely, we use stories about stars like Sridevi as ways of understanding ourselves. How much value do we put on looks? What should a woman do when she ages? How can someone so lovely have such problems? If we looked like that and had that lifestyle, our lives would be easy. Who deserves to be loved? Who should be happy?

Sridevi’s stardom has also inspired many and given them happiness. Among the positive appropriations are those of the LGBTQ community, which celebrates her glamour and determined struggle in a world which did not understand her. I once saw a pitch perfect dance by a presumed gay Indian celebrity to Mere Haathon Mein Nau Nau Chudiyaan Hain. I heard members of this community pay tributes to her in India on the weekend of her death. They remembered her beauty, the suffering she had to overcome, her mischief, fun and sexiness.

My friends who knew Sridevi were hugely fond of her and they kept their friendship with her throughout. They spoke of her with affection while admiring her work and dedication. Yash Chopra spoke of the famous time when, during Lamhe, she had to return to India for her father’s death, and then got back to rebegin work promptly, even shooting comedy sequences.

I met Sridevi only once when I was working on my book on Yash Chopra. It was soon after her daughter was born and I waited for her at her house. A woman entered the room and said nothing at first. Then she said to me, “Hello, I’m Sridevi.” I almost said, ‘No, you’re not.’ I too had been dazzled by her high-wattage screen presence that I didn’t recognise her gentle luminosity. I never saw her on the sets, but everyone said she had an inner light that she could switch on and off as it suited her. Now that light remains only as captured in her films, images in light.

Many felt that her character in her comeback film, English Vinglish (2012) had strong similarities with her own life. The difficulties with language were those of a Maharashtrian housewife who wanted to learn English rather than a South Indian dealing with Hindi.

Ignored and overlooked by even those who love her, it is when she steps out into the wider world that her inner and outer beauty are noticed. Sridevi played the role with the dignity and innocence she has had offscreen and onscreen.

Most of us will never know who Sridevi really was and even though there will be biographies of her, her real meaning for us lies in her wonderful films. For me, she will always be that lovely creature, stretching in a rose wet with dewdrops, filling our world with the romance of moonlight, our Chandni.

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