Sridevi (1963-2018)

Our Lady of Desire

K Hariharan is professor, Film Studies and Broadcast Journalism at Ashoka University, Sonepat
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Sridevi and the beautiful symmetry of destiny and daring

SRIDEVI EPITOMISED A screen presence that could easily be compared to the daring and the outspokenness of Hollywood divas like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Norma Shearer, who broke all conventions of a male-dominated narrative by playing roles of working-class women, the mentally unstable, divorcees, polyamorous and even scheming femme fatales. The way she came to occupy the desires of an entire nation so rapidly and that too with a massive bunch of ‘forgettable’ films will always remain an enigma.

It all started in the mid-1970s when the Dravidian movement split vertically in 1972, pitting screenwriter Chief Minister Karunanidhi of the DMK against the iconic MG Ramachandran of the AIADMK. On witnessing this breakup, the young Tamil generation felt their first jolt of disillusionment. The second traumatic experience hit them when both these strong chauvinist leaders capitulated under the pressure of the Emergency to make peace with Indira Gandhi and the Congress party. The euphoria of a glorious ‘free’ Tamil Nation had completely crumbled, and it was during these bitter times that a small revolution was being nurtured inside the film factory of a maverick called K Balachander. If I had to single out one film where Sridevi got her first lessons in acting for the screen, it would be Moondru Mudichu (‘Three Sacred Knots’, 1976). She was just 13 and had already acted in 42 films by then, from tiny bit appearances as a child artist to full-fledged character roles. Those were the days when budding actors simply accepted any ‘job’ so long as there was some income, transportation provided and free hot meals served on location. But Moondru Mudichu was going to be different. Here, she would encounter two more rookies who changed her future in very significant ways. She played the romantic lead with Kamal Haasan whose good friend in the film was essayed by Rajinikanth. Kamal Haasan, like Sridevi, had a string of films behind him already, but for Rajinikanth, this was his first big role.

Moondru Mudichu was about the politics of desire. And Sridevi had to portray a phenomenon that could appeal to a generation of post-Independence young men and women who were entering an urban workforce driven by the ideals built by cinema and popular culture. She plays a young woman who aspires to be an educated graduate, but has only the support of an elder sister who does ‘extra’ roles in the film industry. She has a crush on Kamal Haasan, a decent-looking youth, who runs a shop selling film records. Quite appropriately, a song by Yesudas brings them closer. Haasan’s best friend Rajinikanth is a carefree cigarette-smoking character who also has a crush on her. But this ‘other’ form of desire can only express affection through harassment. Which of these two men will finally tie the Three Sacred Knots of marriage? Or will she choose to protest? A vulnerable Sridevi, who experiences both the pleasure and pain of the ruptured Dravidian imbroglio, had to travel this risky path with two men who were so different. She also had to be the crucible of K Balachander’s anger against a system dominated by the two political patriarchs.

There could not have been a greater studio to groom the actor’s sensibilities and at the same time help her mature as an ‘adult’ actor. In the ensuing triangular conflict, a hapless Kamal Haasan drowns in a lake while a sadistic Rajinikanth simply watches without helping. Sridevi avenges the brutal forces of this desire by taking employment as the governess in a rich widower’s house to take care of his children and estates. Coincidentally, she also comes to know that the widower is also the father of Rajinikanth. Sridevi now dons the mantle of the femme fatale from the various film-noir classics that Balachander had seen. She works hard to seduce the widower to get him to tie the three sacred knots. With this act, she is now Rajinikanth’s mother and dares him to harass her!

The sado-masochism of desire would soon see the trio come together in 1976 with another path-breaking film by Bharatiraja, 16 Vaiyithinale (‘The Sixteenth Year’). Kamal Haasan recalls: “Most of the films we worked in were of the ‘disturbing’ type, requiring a certain maturity on the audiences’ part. And I found a perfect co-actor in Sridevi, balancing my characters’ anxieties, anger and sexuality. She could portray the right amount of vulnerability mixed with desires of a new women’s generation and a personal charisma added to it.” This film shifts Sridevi to the rural hinterland to portray the desires of a young village girl called Mayil (peacock in Tamil) who aspires to join the medical profession. Yet again, she is bound by the desires of three men. Kamal Haasan plays a slightly retarded servant in her household, Rajinikanth is the lumpen wastrel with two sidekicks hanging around a tea-shop, and Satyajit plays the young qualified doctor who is appointed to run the village’s primary health centre. Mayil’s heart goes out to this professional, but this city slicker sees her purely as a body. The wastrel thinks it is his birthright as the self-appointed village head to marry this pretty young woman. And the asexual servant can only think of serving her all his life.

Moondru Mudichu (‘Three Sacred Knots’) was about the politics of desire. And Sridevi had to portray a phenomenon that could appeal to a generation of post-Independence young men and women who were entering an urban workforce driven by the ideals built by cinema and popular culture

Sridevi now plays agent to a new phenomenon here and we can understand it better by studying it as the rise of the ‘queer’ desire where the pea-hen assumes and adopts the so-called beauty of the ‘Mayil’, the peacock with all ‘his’ feathers spread in a semi-circle sending out mating calls. The binary of the masculine and feminine is broken down and she now embodies the only way that the young ‘betrayed’ Tamil generation can attack the ‘patriarchal’ strongholds of the Dravidian empire. Quite appropriately, the doctor runs away and the asexual servant murders the lumpen who tries to rape Mayil, for which he is sentenced to jail, leaving Mayil to face the future all by herself. Very interestingly, ten years later, in 1986 Sridevi plays the leading role in Nagina where she demonstrates this ambivalence. The cobra, which depicts male sexual virility in most cultures, is donned with equal ferocity by her as s/he avenges the trauma meted out to her by patriarchal forces. Her livid visage is compensated on the other hand by her almost gymnastic skill in performing the dance of a snake. This film established not only Sridevi’s enormous talent for such complicated dance movements, but also placed her into a mythical framework desirability for the new age.

IF ONE HAD to select a film that depended entirely on her sheer performance, with few narrative props to support her character, one would choose Moondram Pirai (‘The Lunar Phase’, 1982), remade later in Hindi as Sadma with the same film crew led by Balu Mahendra, another great visualiser from Chennai. The film taps yet again into another form of queer desire where Sridevi plays Viji, a young girl who suffers from a form of amnesia due to a head injury in a road accident. She is saved by Seenu, a young school teacher played by Kamal Haasan living all by himself in the cool environs of a hill station. For a full 100 minutes, we see the young helpless woman, now like a child, who has no idea of her desirability and an able-bodied male who virtually nurses an unknown beautiful woman in the lap of paradise. He has complete access to her while she cannot even access herself. The film plays between his ‘morality’ and her ‘vulnerability’ with no end in sight. An elderly lady in a neighbouring house comforts and heightens the anxieties of the narrative by dropping in occasionally. Like the asexual Adam and Eve, they inhabit a frozen time and space in which Seenu tries to revive her memories by teaching her some words and the art of writing. Balu Mahendra would recall: “I could not have found a better person than Sridevi, for such a character. She fitted herself into Viji’s character on her own, marking her performance within the space between intimacy and innocence. More often than not, I let them improvise and develop their chemistry as I saw them from a distance. This film has the least number of close-ups and yet their warm performance blended with the cool mist that surrounded us all time.” The film ends with Viji recovering her memory and completely erasing Seenu from it, while Seenu crumbles at her lack of recognition and wills himself to a kind of insanity.

If one had to select a film that depended entirely on Sridevi’s sheer performance, with few narrative props to support her character, one would choose Moondram Pirai (‘The Lunar Phase’)

While such an asexual or almost androgynous sexuality of Moondram Pirai dominated the cinematic imaginary in the mid-80s, another phenomenon was being nurtured on the political horizon, and it is worth dipping into this psychosocial landscape of Tamil Nadu at this point. Chief Minister MG Ramachandran’s failing health at this point was a matter of grave concern in the state, as it was unclear who would don the mantle of leadership after his demise. For the AIADMK political coterie, his wife Janaki may have been seen as preferable, but for the people, their choice would be Jayalalithaa who was the party’s cultural secretary and popularly accepted as MGR’s consort. Do we register the platonic relationship between Jayalalithaa and MGR as if presaged by this film? Did Moondram Pirai prepare the audience to accept a woman as their political leader, a woman whom they would adore as a combination of the beautiful and the innocent, yet in possession of the resolve to punish any form of transgression that would disturb her status?

As she ascended to stardom in Telugu and Hindi cinema, however, Sridevi did not have the fortune of working with thinking filmmakers with a feel for political nuance. The focus here was mostly on dance, costume, make-up and a few scenes demanding heightened performances. True, Telugu producers paid much more and demanded less time of their women actors to complete inane macho movies such as Himmatwala, Mawaali, Kalakaar, Justice Chowdary, etcetera (all in 1983). What saved her and kept her in constant demand was her ability to execute some strenuous choreographic moves and keep her ‘innocent’ charm alive at all times. And amidst the clutter of immature films, she got a chance to do a complete Disneyesque fantasy in Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India (1987) with a screenplay written by Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar. Watching the film, you can virtually see all the lessons she must have learnt in the 26 films she did paired with Kamal Haasan. In a 10-minute-long sequence, she virtually plays Kamal Haasan enacting Charlie Chaplin in a pool room where she encounters a big bunch of baddies and bashes them at will. Some of the fine details she brings into this raunchy sequence with such gay abandon makes one sad that such talent was wasted in Bollywood, where baseless formulas and unprofessional jugaad were seen as the hallmark of an industry serving the cause of entertainment and something called popular culture.

FROM 1989 ONWARDS, she went on to do a series of films in which she plays dual roles, starting with Guru, Chaalbaaz, Naaka Bandi, etcetera. On a parallel note, we also note the entry of younger sirens like Madhuri Dixit, Karisma Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai who were going to offer some stiff competition in this space. Yet, after a hiatus of almost 14 years, she comes to work with an intelligent director in Gauri Shinde. English Vinglish may have come across as a typical example of ‘good cinema’ harking back to the 70s, where the communication of a main message was vital to its existence. Playing the role of Shashi Godbole, one can feel Sridevi yearning to go back to those Tamil films where filmmakers provided the space and courage to break out of a formula and close in on the immediate reality affecting us on a daily basis. Gauri’s bold script about a conventional housewife going to a ‘Speak Better English’ tutorial accommodates a delicately crafted amorous relationship between Shashi and her classmate, Laurent, a French chef. And there is a moment in the film, when she asserts her choice to be content with her ‘conventional’ family, where one can discover the consummate artist inside Sridevi.

What must it have been like for a girl like Sridevi, born in Sivakasi, where the country’s matchsticks are produced to light up kerosene stoves and bidis, to come and seek a career in film acting? Unlike her co-star Kamal Haasan, she was not fortunate enough to come from a prominent and well-educated family that could provide valuable emotional support. She proved that with the right attitude and a willingness to work hard, she could endeavour to become a woman of substance. Between 1976 and 1982, she acted in over 120 films—15 films a year in four different languages—before she faced Jeetendra to do Himmatwala, the Hindi film that would place her in the Hindi cinema orbit. Between the age of 14 and 20, a lower-middle-class girl virtually wades through a swamp of 120 films for which she had to act, dance, fight and dub her own voice, since she was proficient in all four southern languages. I can also vouch for the fact that in several cases, she must have never received the remuneration she must have been promised. Those were the days when no contracts were signed. You just worked on trust, hope and fresh air. Sridevi made it possible to move all the way up with just sheer guts, raw nerves and a storehouse of natural acting talent. Director Balu Mahendra would often tell me: “If there was one thing that was a complete luxury during those days of hectic filmmaking, it was a good night’s sleep.” May Sridevi rest in peace.

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