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Malavika’s Mumbaistan: A courageous beauty called Sridevi

Sridevi, who began her career at four as a child actor and acted in an astonishing 300 movies, was a powerhouse of talent

mumbai Updated: Feb 26, 2018 11:47 IST
Malavika Sangghvi
Malavika Sangghvi
Hindustan Times
Malavika’s Mumbaistan,Sridevi,Shekhar Kapur
Boney Kapoor, Sridevi and Khushi spotted at the Mumbai airport earlier this month. (HT FILE)

The outpouring of grief over the untimely and sudden death of actor Sridevi on Saturday night in Dubai, demonstrates how deeply loved and adored the superstar of Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, and Kannada cinema was. Tributes came in from the President, the Prime Minister, the Maharashtra chief minister, shocked colleagues, and millions of grieving fans from around the world.

Sridevi, who began her career at four as a child actor and acted in an astonishing 300 movies (“More than Aamir, SRK and me put together,” as Salman Khan once famously stated), was a powerhouse of talent; a gifted performer who could effortlessly slip into any character, be it understated or OTT. Her comic timing was legend, and even her sizzling dance routines were graceful. “She can do the most extraordinarily erotic moves with her body, but her face never loses its dignity or innocence,” Mr India director Shekhar Kapur had said, explaining her charm.

Perhaps it is this dichotomy that lay at the heart of the Sridevi enigma and one that accounts for the worldwide sadness. You see, unlike her peers, Sridevi’s life ran contrary to all stereotypes. She was a female superstar in an age when the honour had been only afforded to her male colleagues. She was a national heartthrob with a controversy-free personal life.

In spite of her stardom and omnipresence, she remained an essentially private person until the end, whose thoughts and inner feelings remained unknown. In fact, in contrast to her siren-like screen persona, she was shy, introverted and mostly silent. But put her in front of the camera and she transformed into a tigress, her co-workers often pointed out. She may have been the quintessential south Indian star, but she managed to effortlessly embrace her new life as the wife of Boney Kapoor, a Punjabi producer from a Bollywood clan. Another departure from the norm. Once married, she threw herself into a new role with the same commitment and discipline she had displayed in her career. She took a 15-year break from films to bring up her daughters, and she seemed to relish that job.

And then, the comeback; once again to great acclaim with her sensitive and luminous performance as an English-language-challenged mother-of-two in English Vinglish. She did all of this with a complete absence of drama and PR fuss. Five years ago, during a rare TV interview conducted before a well-heeled Delhi audience, she came across as a shy, vulnerable woman whose success had hardly affected her or given her delusions of grandeur. On that day, she had spoken but also blushed as any delighted wife and mother would, especially when husband Boney Kapoor, called upon to speak spontaneously about her, had waxed eloquent, revealing a bit more than she would have liked.

More revealingly, on that occasion, when asked if she’d had any regrets in life, she simply shrugged and replied in the negative, saying she had loved every moment of her life and would not have had it any other way. This from a woman who began working at the age of four under the harsh lights of grimy studios; at an age when children enjoy being protected and pampered. This in an age when processes and technologies were far more nascent, and in circumstances that were enormously challenging. “Everyone says she was lucky to be born so talented,” an emotional Kamal Haasan expressed in his tribute. “But that is not true. She worked hard and developed her craft with every film.” That was also one of Sridevi’s biggest achievements. As a woman who had surmounted or borne a million different challenges and obstacles, she never let her guard down, or allowed her personal traumas to be known to the world.

When she was 28, Sridevi’s mother Rajeswari Yanger, who had been her anchor, became the victim of a shocking medical lapse in America. This left her in a vegetative state. The actress had soldiered on even after her beloved mother’s death, staying strong and stoic; never allowing her innate dignity or celebrated reserve to crack in public. “She lived a happy life,” Haasan said. Actress Naghma spoke of her personal warmth and sense of mischief with her closest ones. All these qualities, along with her magnificent legacy of work, might explain the unprecedented outpouring of grief over her passing. That, and the fact that a large-eyed, courageous, sparkling, talented, and enigmatic beauty, had left our midst.

And the world had been left poorer, much poorer for it...

First Published: Feb 26, 2018 11:47 IST