Sridevi, the Eternal Screen Goddess and ‘Female’ Bachchan who fought for equality in Bollywood

In December 2019, Satyarth Nayak wrote Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, published by Penguin Random House India. In a conversation with us, Nayak tells us about the book, who all he spoke to from Bollywood and more.
Sridevi was called the ‘Female Bachchan.’ She had refused films opposite Amitabh Bachchan unless she had an equally solid role.
Sridevi was called the ‘Female Bachchan.’ She had refused films opposite Amitabh Bachchan unless she had an equally solid role.
Updated on Apr 05, 2020 03:04 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Suddenly Sridevi looked at me and said in a soft voice, “I have seen your Khel Khel Mein four times”. I was flustered for a moment and replied, ‘Thank you. You dance very well.’ That was the only conversation I had with her during Nagina.

The lines above are from the book, Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, by Satyarth Nayak. In this excerpt, Rishi Kapoor is describing his interaction with Sridevi during the making of the blockbuster hit, Nagina, showing us how shy and reserved India’s first female superstar actually was in real life.

Sridevi was called the ‘Female Bachchan.’ She had refused films opposite Amitabh Bachchan unless she had an equally solid role. Amitabh had to woo her by sending a truckload of flowers to get her to act opposite him in Khuda Gawah.

Sridevi in Khuda Gawah. (Youtube)
Sridevi in Khuda Gawah. (Youtube)
Amitabh Bachchan in Khuda Gawah.
Amitabh Bachchan in Khuda Gawah.

The only heroine to make a triumphant comeback, thus shattering Bollywood rules, Sridevi had also challenged industry patriarchy throughout her career. Which is why it’s quite surprising that till last year, there wasn’t any book chronicling her life story.

In December 2019, Satyarth Nayak wrote Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, published by Penguin Random House India. In a conversation with us, Nayak tells us about the book, who all he spoke to from Bollywood and more.

What prompted you to write the book?

I have been an ardent admirer of Sridevi and I had always been appalled by the fact that there was no elaborate book celebrating her prolific career. She’s the only truly pan-Indian phenomenon who was no.1 in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu cinema. Sridevi became the ‘hero’ of her films and raised the status of the Indian film heroine.

Today we talk about misogyny, sexism, wage parity and toxic masculinity and Sridevi had battled it all in the industry and emerged victoriously. She was respectfully addressed as ‘Mai’ in Bollywood since she had become way more powerful than her male co-stars and was even paid more than them. She not only empowered her audiences but also became a messiah for the LGBT community worldwide.

Her legacy spans fifty years and yet there was no book chronicling these legendary achievements of her. I guess Sridevi’s massive body of work was intimidating for most writers and I glad my book got to celebrate the megastar.

Did you ever meet Sridevi?

Yes, I was fortunate to meet Sridevi in 2012 when she had come to Delhi to promote English Vinglish. That’s my only meeting with her and I shall always cherish it. I remember lauding her for her incredible performance in the film and she smiled softly and spoke a few words. We clicked a picture together and it was Sri who directed us to the right spot with good lighting. This was one of the lesser-known facts about her that she was technically astute about things like how to judge the correct lighting for a shot. Gauri Shinde took that picture which makes it even more special.

Author Satyarth Nayak.
Author Satyarth Nayak.

What was the research process like for this book? Who all did you meet and why?

My research for this book was two-pronged. I have done over 70 interviews for the Sridevi book. Very few people are aware of her iconic body of work down south and the first few chapters of the book are solely devoted to that. I have interviewed some of the biggest southern superstars who worked opposite her like Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh. In Mumbai, I interviewed her co-actors like Jeetendra, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol and Rishi Kapoor and directors like Subhash Ghai, Mahesh Bhatt, Pankaj Parashar, Gauri Shinde and R. Balki.

Besides veterans like Lata Mangeshkar, Waheeda Rehman and Javed Akhtar, the younger generation like Karan Johar, Kajol, Vidya Balan, Manish Malhotra and Neeta Lulla etc have all shared rare anecdotes and memories of Sri. The way they spoke about her, reflected her legendary equity in Bollywood.

Even voices from Canada, Pakistan and Dubai have shared their love proving once again how Sridevi’s iconic status transcended borders. Besides these interviews, my other big resource was a stack of film magazines from the 80s and 90s that form a part of my personal collection. They are filled with interviews of Sridevi through various stages of her career. In her absence, those quotes have become her voice in my book. When you will read those, you will get glimpses of both the person and the performer that she was. Those were my main research components and my narrative becomes the glue that holds it all together.

What was the biggest challenge while working on this book?

One big challenge was what to keep out of the book given that Sridevi’s career is so prolific. This was a book about an actress whose career spanned 50 years, 5 languages and 300 films. Indian cinema is 100 years old and Sridevi owns half of that.

Condensing this gargantuan journey in a book was quite daunting but that was also the fun part. Today when the book has become a bestseller, I am glad that all that effort has been so beautifully worthwhile.

Did you speak to any of her contemporaries or rivals from the 80s or 90s?

I was keen to speak to actresses like Rekha and Madhuri Dixit. While I was told that Rekha was unavailable, Madhuri’s manager never responded back after our initial conversation. I and Penguin also tried our best to interview Amitabh but it could not happen.

What are some questions you would have asked Sridevi if you would have interviewed her?

There are so many questions I would have loved to ask. Like what was the rationale behind her famous switch-on-switch-off technique. What were some of her most indelible memories as a child actor? How did it feel playing a leading lady at the age of twelve and what were her experiences of being a teenage star. How was it dealing with her father’s sudden death and her mother’s botched-up surgery?

I would have tried to probe deeper into that mask of the actor. The psyche of the loner that she was. For a woman who spent most of her life, playing ‘others’ on screen, I would have examined deeper if the real Sridevi lived somewhere in her own fantasy.

The author tweets at @shadowwarior and can be reached at kabir.bhandari@htdigital.in and Instagram.com/kabirsinghbhandari

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Kabir Singh Bhandari is a journalist and stand up comedian. He has 10 years experience in journalism and has worked in India, Bangladesh and Thailand.

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