Thank you Sridevi, our queer icon
For a generation of queer people in India, Sridevi was an icon whose electric appearances on screen, coupled with her often outrageous costumes and elaborate dance steps unshackled us.
The first time I saw Sridevi shimmy, I was seven and had bunked school for the first time. We were at a friend’s home and they had cable television which played Hindi film songs in the afternoon.
That afternoon, the television was playing Main Teri Dushman, then an iconic song from the 1986 film Nagina, where Sridevi plays a woman who is a snake in disguise. As the song unfolded before me, so did a new world filled with exciting steps that I couldn’t stop waiting to emulate in private. I was years before accepting my sexuality, but Nagina taught me a step that would be replicated numerous times in many nightclubs, in front of lovers, friends and family.
I rushed back home and over the next few years binged on her songs. I sometimes didn’t understand the movie completely — though Mr India continues to be one of my favourite films — but my eyes would light up the moment Sridevi came on screen. Her golden dress, and plumage in Hawa Hawaii, I tried to copy more than once, with disastrous consequences. But I didn’t care — mouthing the nonsensical words along with her, and flailing my arms about in an attempt to copy her grace was enough.
For a generation of queer people in India, Sridevi was an icon whose electric appearances on screen, coupled with her often outrageous costumes and elaborate dance steps unshackled us. When our homes were prisons and our families chains, Sridevi set us free. Her songs gave us fleeting glimpses of how the world would be if we could dance like we wanted to, and wear the clothes our hearts desired. In her often-garish, kitschy performances, we saw the promise of a future where we wouldn’t lie about who we were and what we liked — that there could be a tomorrow when we would not be afraid of who were are.
Those who grew up with her songs swore by her, even though some of us were pulled by the later charm of Madhuri Dixit. Many years later, in English Vinglish, I fell in love with her again, with the smile and the occasional electric move, but the movie also showed what our desire for her superstardom had done to her — the pressure to not age, stay perfect, unwrinkled and beautiful, if only to feed the imagination of a new generation of moviegoers.
This morning as I trawled through Facebook, the queer community around me had come together to mourn the departure of an icon we saw as ours. People shared their memories of living as Sridevi, jiving as queer folks to the only person we saw as our hero. And the shock of the loss.
Nothing about those pastiches are perfect — as exemplified by the cringe-worthy racism of the Hawa Hawaii song, and the blackface dancers in the background. But at a time when the world seemed against you, or worse, a world where you weren’t supposed to exist, Srivdei stood as shining validation. For that alone, and for giving us the courage to dance when the world told us not to, thank you Sridevi.
(Views expressed are personal)
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