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Review: Sridevi: Queen of Hearts by Lalita Iyer

Sridevi: Queen of Hearts is a fan’s tribute to the superstar who went away too soon

books Updated: Mar 08, 2019 17:51 IST
Lamat R Hasan
Lamat R Hasan
Hindustan Times
Sridevi,Bollywood,Amitabh Bachchan
Cute as a button: Sridevi in her prime.(Alamy Stock Photo)
165pp, Rs 399; Westland

On 25 February 1983, Sridevi stole hearts with her first commercial Bollywood hit Himmatwala and, thereon, was at the top of her game for more than a decade, bagging the meatiest roles and doing the unthinkable - commanding the same price as the Badshah of Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan.

On 24 February 2018, almost 300 films later - in Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Malayalam – she accidentally drowned in a hotel bathtub in Dubai. She was 54.

Lalita Iyer’s fourth book, “Sridevi: Queen of Hearts”, is a fan’s tribute to the superstar of “Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood and Mollywood” who went away too soon.

Iyer’s unconventional writing, neither biographical nor an academic endeavour, is a winner, much like Sridevi, who created a new benchmark for female actors, even though she didn’t quite fit in and was, most certainly, linguistically imperfect.

Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan, or Sridevi as we know her, debuted as a child artist at age four. She won hearts playing Lord Murugan in a Telugu film and went on to become the highest paid child artist, picking up several awards along the way. Sridevi was launched as a heroine at the unbelievable age of ten and a half. She was perhaps the only child artist who transformed into a heroine overnight, without getting time to deal with the pangs of adolescence. Little is known about the reticent star who stayed away from the limelight, answering, if at all, in monosyllables or chanting “ask Amma”. She was managed by her mother, Rajeshwari Yanger, once an aspiring actor and now living her dream through her daughter, and later by her sister.

Sridevi, Iyer points out, was the byproduct of an era when parents awakened to the prospects of the film industry to make quick money, when dropping out of school was not a big deal, when doing two shifts a day was cool, and when parents looked the other way when their children were made to do exploitative roles.

Soon after the commissioning of the book, Iyer watched Sridevi movies back to back, met people who were willing to talk about the diva, deciding not to waste time accessing her inaccessible inner circle, and instead spending time with her mother, a huge Sridevi fan, albeit of non-Bollywood films.

“My mother and I don’t agree on most things. We agree on Sridevi,” Iyer writes, a journey which helped her discover her mother as well as deconstruct the star, who could be shy, sexy, innocent, sensitive, frivolous, badass and arrogant at the same time.

Sridevi lived a shielded life, literally under the nose of her mother, till she moved to Bombay, and fell in love with her co-star Mithun. Her mother, who “masterminded” her life and career – from money deals to movie scripts - made sure she did not sign any more movies with Mithun and killed their love.

The death of her father in 1991 and of her mother in 1995 left her lonely, and it made her fondness for her Mr India producer Boney Kapoor stronger. Kapoor was smitten by Sridevi and had let her known over the years. Already pregnant with his first child, she married the much-married Kapoor in 1996, at the age of 33, much to the chagrin of his family. She took a hiatus from the film industry, her first ever since her foray at age four, to be a hands-on mother to her two girls.

Sridevi returned to the big screen with a bang in 2012 with English Vinglish, a role that seemed tailor-made for her, given her ordeal with language. Iyer quotes her as saying to the media, “I’ve always had a problem with language – I’m not fluent in any. So when I did this film, I could relate to it instantly.”

Iyer is a huge fan and her argument in Sridevi’s defence is her entire being spoke, therefore, language was incidental. However, that argument is hard to digest beyond a point as Sridevi’s senior Rekha, also from southern India, had mastered the use of the epiglottis - inkaar wasn’t yinkaar or umeed, womeed, for her. Her contemporary Jaya Prada was also trying to brush up her language.

Author Lalita Iyer ( Courtesy the publisher )

It was Jeetendra who gave Sridevi her first big hit. He told film journalist and historian Bhawana Somaya that Sridevi did not speak a word in Hindi, but she was going to be a sensation in Bombay.

According to Iyer, Chaalbaaz is the finest Sridevi movie – where she plays a double role. She calls it a whacked out comedy with plenty of pop culture references and whacky music, even as Sridevi will be remembered for her roles in Chandni, Mr India and Lamhe.

Sridevi’s downfall began in the 1990s with the advent of the Dhak Dhak girl, Madhuri Dixit, and her rejecting films that turned out to be massive hits.

Despite her linguistic imperfections, Sridevi had a long illustrious career starring in Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, Kannada and Malayam movies. She made 83 films in Telugu, 72 in Hindi, 71 in Tamil, 23 in Malayalam and 6 in Kannada. Mom, her last film, was to be the 300th, according to Boney Kapoor. However, the numbers don’t add up, writes Iyer.

Read more: Madhuri Dixit on her last meeting with Sridevi

I am not a Sridevi fan, and I probably fall into the category of people, who found her “always too much”. I never dissected her physical features and thought that her nose was too big, her face too babyish, her eyes too large or hips too wide. But, yes, like a multitude of others, I cringed at the sound of her squeaky voice, her poor diction, and believed, as Rishi Kapoor, her co-star of many films, did -- “she should stop making those faces”.

Having read Iyer’s tribute, the woman who made a mark despite being body-shamed and ridiculed, I think the squeaky sound of her voice will not hurt much. However, this isn’t a book that compares to Aseem Chabra’s biography of Shashi Kapoor or Yasser Usman’s of Rekha or Vaasanthi’s of J Jayalalithaa. Iyer’s done a good job, but someone needs to take off from here as Sridevi deserves a richer tribute, one that helps understand the iconic Miss Hawa Hawai’s pan-India appeal, one that decodes the real Sridevi, the scars of a childhood denied, of body shaming, and the obsession to stay fit and beautiful well after she had stepped into her 50s.

First Published: Mar 08, 2019 17:50 IST