When she enters a room, she strides in. She knows everyone knows her as the Sridevi. To this day, the actress, who reinvented herself from a plump teenager to one of India’s biggest superstars, sends people into a starry-eyed tizzy.
Prepping for this shoot, we discovered what her name still means – designers were delighted to dress her; jewellery brands professed to adore her; and a state of excitement enveloped everyone every time her name came up in discussions. The time is ripe, then, to step back under the arc light, to again wear lightly the mantle of fame that refuses to fade. Aptly, one of the two films she has chosen as her comeback vehicles is the sequel to her most enduring venture, Mr India.
Though she knows well what an effect she has on Indian movie buffs of all generations, Sridevi is not the diva you might expect her to be. Quite the opposite. She is soft-spoken, sometimes appearing even a little unsure, but that’s probably because she belongs to a generation that weighed its words, instead of launching into a barrage of statements. She plays the gracious hostess to Marie Claire, not a fussy superstar. Daughter Janhavi, showing all the promise of growing into a lovely young woman, has fun choosing outfits for her mother. A black Fendi mini catches her eye; and mum definitely has the body to carry it off. All through the shoot, Sridevi retains the polite, pleasant air that makes our work a breeze.
No incendiary opinions come forth in a conversation with her. But you get the feeling that she means the straightforward things she says about being happy in her family life and grateful for the love of her fans. No waffle about how stepping out to eat chaat is a problem for fear of being mobbed. “I’m grateful for all the love and warmth I get from them,” she says of her fans. “I would be nowhere without them. They’re a huge part of my life.”
Her comeback reunites Sridevi with another constantly evolving superstar, Amitabh Bachchan. It was a meeting of the king and queen when they faced each other on horseback, playing buzkashi in that iconic scene from Khuda Gawah.
Their new film, English Vinglish, is at the other end of the spectrum. Sridevi plays a housewife who enrols at an English-speaking course to please her family. The film is directed by Gauri Shinde, the wife of Paa director Balki. “It was the script that spurred my comeback, and it really felt worth the while to get back to the studio away from my family – besides, they’ve grown up now,” says the actress, referring to Janhavi and younger daughter Khushi. “I’ve loved all of Balki’s films and I got positive vibes from this story.”
In a canny move, Sridevi has balanced the relatively low-key English Vinglish with the star-studded Mr India 2, again produced by husband Boney Kapoor. The original Mr India, Anil Kapoor, returns to romance her, and while a younger couple’s love story has been written in, there is no mistaking whose film this is.
Sky-high expectations are bound to build up around the movie, pitting Sridevi against a generation of pouting, gyrating starlets. Does she, an original superstar, feel any pressure? Do insecurities bubble beneath the composed surface? “I’m very comfortable in my skin, and that has helped me get where I am today,” she says. “I don’t believe in being overconfident, nor am I too self-critical.”
Striking that sort of balance seems to come easily to Sridevi. A little indulgence, a little strictness makes for happy children – that’s her motto for her family.
Her husband being one of Bollywood’s biggest producers, news of the film world naturally trickles into her household. But it never becomes a flood. Cinema is one compartment of her life; it’s not the engine that propels her. “The only thing that links me to Bollywood is my acting and my love for films. Besides that, I’m like any other housewife.” Er, we think not. But Sridevi is happy playing the role. Favourite activities: “Going for movies, working out, attending daughters’ school functions, lunches, dinners or just lazing at home... We travel a lot. I love it.” And she can’t refuse dark chocolate.
She isn’t wrapped up in Bollywood, but it’s hard not to have an opinion on the industry she once ruled. Her thoughts: “Technically, the industry is now at par with the best in the world. It has gained global recognition in terms of our talent and style of filmmaking. The sad thing is that Bollywood is trying to emulate a lot of what’s going [on] around [us] rather than focusing on what it’s really known for. There’s new talent and creativity, but our industry can get stereotypical.”
She faced that, too. Despite revealing intense dramatic talent in a film like Sadma, Sridevi was usually billed as the queen of comedy. Her impish smile and comic timing are better remembered now than the darker, stronger screen moments. She has no qualms about that. “I enjoy making people laugh,” says the ardent fan of Charlie Chaplin. “I think a sense of humour is extremely important.” Her comic icons – from Laurel & Hardy to Peter Sellers and Woody Allen – all “add their own zest” to the genre.
The one entertainer Sridevi has really placed on a pedestal is Michael Jackson. Her MJ obsession found a new channel through another passion: painting. “To say I’m a fan is an understatement. I painted him for my daughters’ room… I worship him.” Jackomania has been passed down from mother to daughters.
That brings us to the 1980s, the decade in which MJ stunned the world with a musical supernova called Thriller. The ’80s were a time of larger-than-life everything, of a pop culture so explosive that the world can’t get enough of it even now. Sridevi holds that era in high regard. Some of her best films – Akhree Rasta, Jaanbaaz, Chandni and, of course, Mr India – come from that time. The big-hair-and-flouncy-clothes decade made a style icon out of her, and she is proud of it. “I’ll never make fun of ’80s fashion – it had its own charm and grace that many try to emulate today.”
Manish Malhotra, Alexander McQueen and Marchesa are her fashion favourites, revealing a latent love of the theatrical. That aura permeates the pared down designs she wears for Marie Claire, her star quality turning the clothes into costumes simmering with controlled drama.
As the world readies for more of Sridevi, we ask, with such a body of work, is she content? The reply reveals a hunger for more: “I’m never satisfied. I always think I could have done better.”