Sridevi: The rough diamond who transformed into first modern female superstar

New Delhi, Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Feb 25, 2018 11:39 PM IST

What set Sridevi apart from other, earlier leading ladies in Hindi cinema was that she made a roaring success of films that revolved around her – rare in an industry dominated by heroes.

When she burst on the Hindi film scene with her first big hit Himmatwala (1983), who could have predicted Sridevi’s spectacular rise over the next ten-odd years? In the song Naino mein sapna, emblematic of the film, she wore thick makeup, glittery Amrapali costumes and did smooth synchronized dance steps with co-star Jeetendra on a beach littered with feather dusters and painted pots. Or – since it was a taming-of-the-shrew kind of film -- brandished whips and wore tight ‘hot pants,’ earning epithets like ‘Thunder Thighs.’

Sridevi, Bollywood’s leading lady of the 1980s and ‘90s who redefined stardom for actresses in India, has died at age 54.(AP)
Sridevi, Bollywood’s leading lady of the 1980s and ‘90s who redefined stardom for actresses in India, has died at age 54.(AP)

No one was more surprised by the film’s success than Sridevi -- because her first Hindi film Solva Sawan (1979, remake of Tamil film 16 Vayathinile) had bombed and she was ready to go back to Madras where she was already a well-established leading actress. (Even Sadma, Hindi remake of Tamil film Moondaram Pirai, which released in the same year – 1983 – flopped).

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But she stayed on in Bombay and soared high, redefining the character, persona, stature and box office allure of the Hindi film heroine. From the ‘rough diamond’ of her early Hindi movie days, she transformed into a svelte sophisticate who could, as easily, play the consummate comedienne. Her string of hits with Jeetendra notwithstanding (they did around 16 films together), when we remember her today, it is really for films like Nagina (1986), Mr India (1987), Chandni (1989), Chalbaaz (1989), Lamhe (1991), Khuda Gawah (1992) and to a lesser degree, movies such as Janbaaz (1986), Gumrah (1993) and Laadla (1994). By the time Judaai (1997) came, Sridevi’s star was already fading, only to burn again, brightly and briefly, in 2012, when she starred in English Vinglish.

What set Sridevi apart from other, earlier leading ladies in Hindi cinema was that she made a roaring success of films that revolved around her – rare in an industry dominated by heroes. It was unusual for filmmakers to write scripts centred around the heroine, and for these films to do well commercially meant that the star in question had forged a very special bond with audiences. A connection had been established -- something most actors would kill for. How did Sridevi make this connection? Was it her traditional, Indian, chubby, doll-like beauty? Her electrifying dancing? Her screen presence that combined seductiveness with steely strength? Her undeniable talent? That mobile, expressive face? Perhaps it was a combination of all this, with that inexplicable ‘x’ factor. Perhaps, after the 1970s, which were ruled by angry-young-man films, audiences were ready to embrace a heroine playing the central character, someone who didn’t sniff and snivel, but grasped her destiny with her own hands.

The 1980s are generally considered a dark, forgettable decade in Hindi films, full of crude formulaic films, and no doubt some of Sridevi’s films fall into this category, but she was also instrumental in giving audiences some sparkling gems in those years.

Take, for instance, the biggest blockbuster of 1986, Nagina, a film held together by Sridevi, who turned in a powerful, dramatic performance as a vengeance-seeking nagin in human form. Once again – a recurring motif in Sridevi’s films – her dance number Main teri dushman went on to become all the rage. Barely two years later came the smash hit Chandni, which revolved around the female lead (called Chandni), where Yash Chopra presented Sridevi as a typical Yashraj heroine, extravagantly beautiful and feminine in pale, clinging saris, but also as a modern young working woman. (Chopra’s other film with her, Lamhe, may have failed at the box office but Sridevi’s double role as mother-daughter was the highlight; in later years the film went on to acquire a cult status.) Chaalbaaz, a remake of the 1972 hit Seeta Aur Geeta, saw Sridevi at her goofy best. In between, there had been the successful Mr India, where audiences delighted in Sridevi doing a brilliant comedic turn as a klutzy journalist. Her face alight with a hundred expressions, her feet moving like quicksilver, her Hawa hawai song-and-dance was the ultimate in pure fun. In the same film, her other number Katte nahin kat te, is still considered the ultimate in sensuality.

Sridevi’s winning streak continued till the early 1990s. In Khuda Gawah -- true her penchant for strong roles -- she played the part of the dazzling, fierce Benazir. Directors couldn’t afford to give her mundane parts; audiences always wanted more from her. In Laadla, she played a hard-hearted wealthy young woman; in Judaai, she sold her husband to another woman! Yet both films were hits.

Sridevi ruled Bollywood and anyone else who came on the scene -- like Madhuri Dixit, who had also become a major star by the late 1980s – had to first dislodge Sridevi. No wonder movie magazines of the time often ran stories with headlines like “Can Madhuri Overthrow Sridevi?” because back then, Sridevi was still the highest-paid, most successful female Bollywood actress who could give several heroes a run for their money.

Her star started dimming by the mid-Nineties. By 1996 Sridevi had got married to producer Boney Kapoor and moved away from the spotlight into the shadows of domesticity. Recently, she had started acting in films again (English Vinglish, Mom), but that phase has ended even before it could properly begin. Her legions of fans, though, have much to remember her by – she will always remain the first modern female superstar with a secure place in their hearts.

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    Poonam Saxena is the national weekend editor of the Hindustan Times. She writes on cinema, television, culture and books

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