Hindi cinema’s first memory of Sridevi is as actor Lakshmi’s younger sister in Julie (1975) where even as part of the backdrop most of the time, you noticed in her a restless wiggle to outperform her tiny role. Acting for her is an instinctive, internal thing, not flashy or overt. Something affirmed by her latest co-star (in Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish) and French superstar, Mehdi Nebbou, in an interview. Born in a Tamil family, she became a star at the age of six, was a leading South Indian superstar in her teens before going on to conquer the Hindi film industry and rule it for more than a decade. Still, you do not see in her today any trace of a jaded actor who has seen it all and done it all.
In English Vinglish, she plays a submissive housewife without a sense of self and right from the first moment when she faces the camera, you forget the star who once was as much of a box-office draw as the top heroes. You forget because Sridevi blurs into Shashi and her awkward silences, her fumbling attempts to speak her mind and find her voice after years of self-denial. You don’t even see the process of the actor as she interprets a character she has never played. You see no seams, no edges, no false notes. Just a performer who knows her craft inside out and can play anyone, right from an irresistible baby Muruga in Kandan Karunai (her first film), the child woman of Moondram Pirai (or Sadma in Hindi), the snake woman of Nagina, the ingenue of Lamhe or the dream girl of Chandni.
In English Vinglish, even without raising her voice, or turning on the glamour faucet even once, she vanishes into the narrative and into the lives of millions of Indian women who are mothers and wives and have forgotten to be individuals.
Hers has been a long journey. She got her first breakthrough role in K Balachander’s film Moondru Mudichu in 1976 and by the early ’80s, she had starred in a slew of super hit films as she held her own against superstars like Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. She is also perhaps the only female actor to became a leading light in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and the Hindi film industries. Her debut in Hindi films, Solva Sawan (1976), flopped however and it was only with the 1983 blockbuster Himmatwala that she arrived, never to leave. Even before the film released, the buzz about her was electric. Stills from the shoot of Himmatwala warned the trade watchers of a storm that was headed from the South to Mumbai. The welcome was rapturous because she was a box office dream. She could dance, emote, and look glamorous. Her voice and diction were an issue and Rekha dubbed for her in a film or two but then Sridevi unapologetically embraced her flaw and so did we and put up with her even when she childishly warbled the title song of Chandni.
The one thing that marked her career was her ability to reinvent herself. From playing one dimensional roles in masala potboilers like Tohfa, Mawaali and Justice Chowdhry, all inspired by her regional successes, she morphed into a leading lady with pan Indian appeal who lent her sparkling, Chaplinesque comic talent to Shekhar Kapoor’s cult hit Mr India, who could be meek or mercurial, a victim or a bully in the hugely entertaining Chaalbaaz and then embody ethereal romance in Yash Chopra’s cinema. She erased regional divides and became one of Indian cinema’s iconic faces. A female actor who signed films on her own terms and did not need a male superstar to augment her box-office appeal. Someone who combined super-stardom with critical acclaim and became an inspiration for generations of aspirants.
In English Vinglish, you cannot miss the enormity of her achievement as a woman whose mother tongue is Tamil but who still plays a Maharashtrian housewife in a Hindi film without a trace of discomfort. And when she bursts unwillingly into a dance, you smile and understand just what real actors are made of. Believability. And a touch of inexplicable magic.
(Reema Moudgil is the author of Perfect Eight, editor of unboxedwriters.com and an RJ)