I was but a rookie journalist when I was first introduced to a 19-year-old Sridevi by well-known film publicist Gopal Pandey at the silver jubilee function of Farz Aur Kanoon (starring Jeetendra and Hema Malini) that took place in Chennai in 1982. He introduced her thus: “This is Sridevi, a South star. She will soon be seen opposite Jeetendra in Hindi films.”
She was soft-spoken and appeared unsure, which I partly attributed to her lack of familiarity with Hindi. To be honest, I didn’t immediately prognosticate a great future for her in Hindi cinema, but she blazed a comet-like trail straight to the top with three crowd-pleasing hits in 1983 — Himmatwala, Justice Chowdhury and Mawaali. Meanwhile, her performance in Sadma (1983) established her acting credentials. Sridevi’s career soared even higher with Tohfa (1984), Nagina (1986) and Mr India (1987).
The film magazine I was edited of in the late 80s decided to bring Sridevi and overnight star Aamir Khan (after his breakthrough, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak) together for the cover. During the shoot, I wondered if I should ask her to remove her stilettos to make sure she doesn’t look taller than Aamir, but before I could utter a word, she flung away her heels, sportingly. Unfortunately, Aamir and Sridevi would never go on to do a film.
During another photo session, Sridevi sported coloured lenses and a golden turban, and she later told me it was one of her favourite covers. I remember how she was trying on different headgears during the shoot, and when I pointed out to the photographer that Rekha had worn a similar headgear for one of her shoots, Sridevi heard this, abruptly got up, and changed her headgear. She never wanted to compromise on her originality.
She was always pleasant, always professional, but wasn’t one for small talk. This was quite in contrast with her contemporaries, Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla. Success, I think, made her a tad imperious, but occasionally, she’d offer a glimpse of the child inside her. One of our assistant editors was interviewing Sridevi at Seth studios in my presence, and she suddenly excused herself to step aside. She then told me, “I’m being asked what I think of the changing face of Mumbai. How can Mumbai city have a face?”
In a later interview, I told her that I thought that her child-like nature from the character she played in Sadma seemed to linger in every character she played. Her response was a giggle, after which she simply replied, “Don’t tell me!” She certainly was child-like, but decidedly not childish.
In the late 1980s, her career went through a brief lull, and it seemed as though Madhuri Dixit might steal a march, but Sridevi stepped out of the shadows and hit another luminous patch with Yash Chopra’s Chaandni (1989), in which she played a spirited girl shunned by her wheelchair-bound husband, Rishi Kapoor, and wooed by her boss, Vinod Khanna. Back-to-back 1989 successes, the romantic Chaandni and the zany ChaalBaaz (a double role which showcased her flair for comedy), propelled Sridevi to dizzying heights.
Later, Sridevi told me that she felt she had ouotgrown the song-and-dance routine, and was keen on doing nuanced roles, “like the ones played by Nargis in Mother India and Hema Malini in Lal Patthar.” In the 90s, she indeed veered towards experimental roles for a rush of creative adrenaline. In Lamhe (1991), director Yash Chopra attempted a daring cross-generational love affair between a salt-and-pepper-haired Anil Kapoor and the infatuated-with-her-mother’s-suitor, Sridevi.
At a time when few heroines could go beyond being ornamental in Amitabh Bachchan’s films, Sridevi boasted of a double role in Khuda Gawah (1992). She then played a fugitive charged for trafficking cocaine in Mahesh Bhatt’s Gumraah (1993), and the mercenary missus who rues selling her husband in Judaai (1997). Judaai was a success, but Sridevi voluntarily retired after her marriage to film producer, Boney Kapoor.
She then spent much of her next 15 years raising her daughters, and interestingly, it was to show the competence of a homemaker that she returned with English Vinglish (2012). Director Gauri Shinde publicly declared Sridevi as the “hero” of her successful film. She refused character roles thereafter and waited for the titular role in Mom (2017), remaining forever Bollywood’s eternal grand dame.
I had once asked Sridevi if she could gracefully come to terms with the probability that lead roles might stop coming her way one day. She thought about this for a while and replied with that innocent smile: “If that ever happens, I will realise that the first half is over and that the post-interval phase has started.” Unfortunately though, the film has ended, and our cinema is all the weaker for it.
The writer is an author and film historian