The Last Empress: A BollyBrit® Tribute To Sridevi
"Ye Lamhe, Ye Pal Hum Barso Yaad Karenge, Ye Mausam Chale Gaye Toh Hum Fariyaad Karenge..."
This tweet from Pakistani actress Mahira Khan sums it up in its entirety. As I lay here numb, with the timeless melodies of the now late Sridevi’s classic films playing in the background, I think back to my childhood, a part of which died on Saturday night, when I heard the shocking news of her untimely demise at the relatively young age of 54.
Why? Why did this woman’s death – a woman whom I’d met all but once at the tender age of 10, at Mumbai’s Film City during the shooting of the epic dud Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, make such an impact, not just on me, but on a generation of cine-goers?
See Sridevi wasn’t a part of my childhood, she was my childhood. I still remember way back in 1988, when I was waiting patiently with my family for a good few hours to catch a glimpse of the superstar, the first star I’d ever actually met mind, and I remember excitedly waiting and watching from a distance as her make-up artists fussed over the minutest details of her overdone face (It was the late 80's, subtle wasn’t fashionable).
We eventually got the chance to interact with her, and surprisingly found her to be extremely quiet, but very forthcoming with photo ops not just with us, but with the queue of fans waiting in the wings to catch a glimpse of their idol. I still recall when someone tried to jump the queue and she curtly retorted and asked them to jump to the back of the queue as we'd got there first. It was a different time. Stars weren’t as accessible through social media as they are now. It was a moment. One that will be etched in my memory forever. Me, a gawky kid from a remote corner of the world interacting with Sridevi. THE Sridevi. We still have a hard copy of the photo lying around somewhere and one that I intend to share as soon as I get my hands on it. I do however have a copy of her signed autograph and the feather that had dropped off her somewhat garish dress, and I'd picked it up sneakily, hoping nobody would have noticed – 1989 – nearly 30 years ago; that's how long this woman has entertained us:
Sridevi wasn’t an actress. She was an institution. And perhaps one that paved the path for actresses today, in that not only did she command a decent pay packet after her meteoric rise to the top, she ensured that she had as much, if not more screen time than her male co-stars. So much so that many insisted that the films she featured in should have actually be named after her, given that she was almost inevitably their saving grace. I remember sniggers when the media said Laadla should have been called Laadli and Mr India should have in fact been titled Miss India purely on the basis that she brought so much to the table. A shy, reserved, introvert behind the camera, Sridevi literally morphed into her onscreen personas – a sign of her volcanic talent perhaps, in that she played parts that were in stark contrast to who she really was.
And what characters they were. Unforgettable in every sense of the word. Whether it was the child-woman in Sadma, who loses her memory post a fatal car crash or the shapeshifting snake in Nagina, Sridevi brought a gravitas and uniqueness to her characters that actresses have seldom brought to the table. Her tizzying trance-like snake dance in the latter especially, where she confronts her captor in the song 'Main Teri Dushman', still leaves me awestruck with its hammer-strong impact, relying solely on Sridevi's histronics and filmed sans any gimmicks.
Actually, most of her films were hugely elevated by her dancing abilities – her films consisted of at least one memorable sequence which brought that fluidity to the fore. As such, her filmography consists of many chartbusters from 'Nainon Mein Sapna,' (Himmatwala) , 'Har Kisiko Nahi Milta' (Jaanbaaz) et al, but it was the late Yash Chopra who truly tapped in on her dancing skills as well as phenomenal talent in both Lamhe and Chandni, undoubtedly the high points of Sridevi's illustrious career. So fascinated was the director with the diva that many actresses who worked with him thereafter consistently hinted that he needed to get over his little Sridevi fixation and move ahead with the times. As such, when he subsequently worked with Juhi Chawla, and much later Madhuri Dixit, the Sridevi effect was visible in both their performances and their looks, however, neither of them could replicate the magic that the director had created with the now late star.
Interestingly, Sridevi was one of the few actresses who never relied on her sexuality to reach the top. Not once did she compromise and agree to a kiss, or display unnecessary cleavage or indulge in vulgarity to help “move the script forward”. Perhaps the closest she got to it was in that chiffon blue saree in "Kaante Nahi Kat Te" in Mr India, where she set the pulses of a nation racing without so much as even baring a leg. The song still remains a template for many Indian actresses and has been spoofed in many films since, but nothing can take away from its sex appeal and the impact Sridevi made with her sultry moves and come hither looks.
Sure dancing was up there among her strengths but her crowning glory of course was her impeccable comic timing and astonishing dramatic delivery. Like a chameleon she smashed out bravura performances one after the other, year upon year, and got noticed irrespective of the fate of the film at the box office.
Memorable among them of course being Yash Chopra’s Chandni which was hugely responsible for catapulting her to the stratosphere. The film where she played the titular role of of the quintessential girl next door caught between two affable men, overbearing in-laws and a sense of duty, firmly established her as a force to reckon with. She followed this up with her twinning act in Pankaj Parashur’s smash hit Chaalbaaz, for which not only did she win the coveted Filmfare (it meant something then), but she also reduced stalwarts Sunny Deol and Rajnikant to bit parts even as she carried the film to box office glory.
Her class act continued with Yash Chopra’s Lamhe, a film years ahead of its time, and undoubtedly one of Chopra’s most accomplished and underrated works. In the film, about a mother and daughter Pallavi and Pooja and their complex, contrasting relationships with Viren (Anil Kapoor), Sridevi brought a rare gravitas, poise and dignity to each of the parts, so much so that even though they looked alike, they were poles apart in personality and approach.
So unprecedented was her rise that after sharing the screen with superstar Amitabh Bachchan in Aakhree Raasta and Inquilab very early on in her career, where she played mere arm candy to Bachchan’s larger than life persona, that in 1992’s Khuda Gawah Mukul Anand’s gave her a role on par with the Big B – a feat unheard of by any actress at the time. That she matched the acting powerhouse step for step, of course goes without saying, even if the film struggled after its initial euphoria.
She followed up with mostly inconsequential parts in forgettable trite and this was a time when many cast a shadow of doubt over her saleability, especially after younger actresses like Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla who were consistently churning out hits (Dil, Beta, Tezaab, Ram Lakhan, Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, Darr), started gnawing away at her popularity. Her rivalry with the former especially, was well documented and columns were written about how they were consistently hankering for the same roles.
It wasn’t until 1994, in Laadla that Sridevi finally returned in full force and delivered a hit in a role that was initially meant for the late Divya Bharti. As a scene chewing super bitch making her mark in a man's world, Sridevi unabashedly played to to the gallery in a part that was a personal favourite. Ho-hum parts continued in standard fodder, until Judaai, again a loud, in your face character, which ultimately revolved around her and was more or less a vanity project produced by Boney Kapoor. The actress as a materialistic wife who loses her all only to redeem herself in the climax, was another personal favourite, purely because Sridevi brought so much to it despite its obvious predictability.
Unfortunately, post Judaai, Sridevi more or less disappeared to raise her kids and resurfaced in Gauri Shinde’s sleeper hit in 2012, English Vinglish, a poignant, moving tale about a stifled housewife who learns the Queen's language on the sly. The film was hands down one of the best films that year, and Sridevi was rightly heralded for a comeback of sorts as the czarina who could still give the newer batch a run for their money especially when it came to sheer acting chops. Her turn in last year's harrowing Mom, as the jilted mother who avenges her stepdaughter's brutal rape, wielded similar results, whereby despite a hap-hazard screenplay the actresses' talent remained all but unquestionable.
Her second innings had only just begun. And the best was yet to come, which is why her untimely death came as a jolt to a generation who had grown up on a staple diet of her doe eyes, that winsome smile, chartbusting songs and a plethora of astonishing performances, that will probably never be matched. A whole generation of actresses that came after her, whether it was Shilpa Shetty, Kareena Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Vidya Balan, heck even Madhuri Dixit aped her style whether they admitted it or not. By and large Sridevi was responsible for starting an revolution, a movement which benefitted a bevy of actresses vying to be seen more than just arm candy.
The hoards of media and social media coverage and condolences and posthumous tributes that have poured in are but a drop in the ocean to the sheer reservoir of talent this woman possessed and suffice to say there will never be another like her. She inspired and entertained a generation in a career spanning half a century, so let’s put an end to all speculation which are doing her a massive disservice and celebrate her life and contribution to cinema instead.
Bijlee Ki Rani indeed. She arrived unexpectedly. She shocked. And was gone in a flash before our very eyes. Rest in peace you legend. You will be missed.
It is hard to imagine the impact someone has on you when they’re constantly around you. They’re just there, you see them all the time, you hear about them all the time. They’re popping up on your social media from time to time, with the media printing occasional articles about them. In short, they’re just there. It is only when they leave, that you begin to realise the importance and the impact that that being has had on your life.
Many would think it’s a bit silly, almost, to grieve the death of an actress, a celebrity, a paparazzi magnet whom many would never have had the chance of seeing in person or meeting. After all, everyone has their own lives to live and their own bread to earn. But imagine the look on a wide-eyed little child’s face watching a diva saunter across the screen in her own unique way. Imagine being mesmerized by a pair of large, bewitching, magical, emotionally abundant eyes. Imagine the diva’s graceful dance moves transcending into your consciousness. This is the impact that Sridevi had on her millions of fans in her 50 year career.
To succinctly describe her impact is difficult. She was THE one actor who transcended the divisions between North and South and was equally as popular in the Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu film industries as she was in the Hindi film industry. In a career spanning 50 years (starting from the age of 4) and with almost 250 film credits to her name, to say that she only affected one industry would be erroneous. She was a pan-Indian star, nay, a SUPERSTAR, the first of her ilk. She affected every Indian, regardless of whether they only watched Hindi or Telugu or Malayalam or Tamil films. She wove herself into the fabric of Indian culture and became a mainstay of the Indian consciousness and reigned supreme as the Queen of all four film industries she was a part of. With so many film credits to her name, it is hard to find a person that doesn’t have a favourite Sridevi performance and/or film.
She also shattered glass ceilings at a time when the bar was set so low for women that it was hard for women to thrive. At a time when women were even more replaceable in films than they are today, Sridevi crossed the gender divide and like a true superstar, was often the one whose star power eclipsed that of her male costar’s. I remember a very young Shah Rukh Khan, at the nascent stage of his career, giving an interview about the film Army (1996) where he said that he signed on to do the film because it gave him the chance to work with Sridevi. Clearly, Sridevi didn’t star with other actors, other actors starred with her.
Speaking on a personal level, the effect Sridevi had on my life is hard to describe in words. I only have my memories to go on. Early 90's India was an India bereft of 24 hours news channels, of entertainment channels, of any cable networks. Doordarshan was the sole news channel, and transmission ended at 9pm. The only way to watch movies then was either in a theatre on your local neighbourhood movie channel provided by your local TV network installer (who would also, very kindly, broadcast pirated copies of the latest releases for your viewing pleasure). The pirated copies were often grainy, with terrible sound and focus. And yet, even through the laughably terrible video quality, Sridevi shone.
She was effervescent, she was joyous, she was vivacious, she was beautiful, she was sexy, she was impish. She breathed and oozed a zest for life and breathed life in a way that was hitherto unseen. I remember clearly how I used an old blue scarf of my mother’s to fashion a sari around my chest and ape her dancing in 'Kaante Nahi Katte Yeh Din Yeh Raat' from Mr. India. I remember begging my mother to buy me nine (exactly nine!) bangles for each hand because Sridevi had sang 'Mere Haantho Mein Nau Nau Choodiya Hain'. I remember wanting to get a turban because Sridevi wore one in Khuda Gawah. I remember screaming ‘Tu Mujhe Kabool!!’ at my startled cousin without understanding what it actually meant. I remember pointing my behind at my bemused parents and wiggling it at them just because Sridevi had done the same in Hawa Hawaii. I hissed like a snake because Sridevi was one in Nagina.
Her second outing in Bollywood (I refuse to use the word ‘comeback’ because she never left) showcased exactly why she was such a great actor. She played Sashi in English Vinglish with such ethos and endearment that her performance warrants repeat viewing.
Sridevi’s loss isn’t just the loss of one of India’s biggest stars, but also the loss of a part of my childhood, of those magical moments and of those memories of hers that brought so much joy. A part of my childhood, and by extension, a part of me has died with her, leaving a hole in my heart. She touched people’s lives in so many ways through so many films that everyone has a favourite Sridevi memory – watching her films while skipping homework or sneaking off to the cinemas to watch one of her releases or similar. She danced and sashayed into the hearts of millions of people and became incredibly beloved, which explains the extreme outpouring of grief that has followed since her death was announced. While many are still trying to process her death and overcome their emotions at her untimely demise, I am peaceful knowing that Sridevi’s indomitable spirit and her work will live on as legend to be enjoyed by future generations to come.
Sal Salam bids farewell to her first great love.
The pious of heart see God everywhere. My personal idol has long been beauty, and, as a child, I saw Sridevi everywhere. Beauty and Sridevi were just about synonymous for me when I was a very young child. Hers was the only famous name I knew, and I called every exceptionally pretty person on TV or in my mother’s magazines by that one name. Soon I learned how to distinguish my deity from the rest; she was shinier, her eyes more animated, her voice like the most delightful cartoon character’s, her dancing a whirl of sorcery that I tried to recreate in my living room, t-shirt on my head to signify her halo of hair.
Sri was first in my pantheon of goddesses, the first of my spiritual foremothers, the image in which I fully intended to make myself. So much of my selfhood was born in the mischievous, knowing sparkle of her eyes. She taught me how to dance, of course (you have to be sexy and goofy when you dance, did you know?), and taught me, as Manju from Chaalbaaz, how to be sassy and flirty. She taught me the delicious power of arrogance; “Understand? You better understand!” I’d snap with a flash of my eyes (which, I’d concluded with great satisfaction, were as saucer-like as hers and which I’d learned from her to widen with exaggerated innocence when I wanted something very much.)
When she rose triumphantly like an enormous flower against a bright European sky in her big, off-shoulder white dress sashed with gold, her curls askew, in a song from her 1991 film Lamhe, I decided that there could be no better way of being a grown up than this, that Sri here was what adulthood – so prosaic and unglamorous when embodied by my parents and their friends – ought to look like. She was full of fun and bounce and shenanigans, like us kids, but could do whatever she wanted, like the grownups!
And the things she wanted to do were far more interesting than going to the office or watching the news anyhow. She wanted to ride in helicopters and dance in the desert and turn into a snake and rob jewels and run companies and sell her husband and lie on a bed of money and … have the best time, really.
No one did (or does) joy like Sri. For children like my own queer and trans little self, who had to learn how to elide themselves and to dim their natural light, she was the Ideal Self, an incarnation of femme exultation that was so much of what we wanted to be or felt like on the inside and couldn't be – irrepressible, impish, candid, goofy, proud, sexy, sunlit, larger-than-life. She was the Happiness Witch.
Of course no one did sorrow better, either. No one cowered in fear better or trembled in sensuous anticipation better or tossed her head in righteous anger better. She did it all with inimitable magic, but I, of course, still tried to imitate her. And when childhood came to a close, I transitioned to just loving her (silently, because liking Bollywood movies too vocally wasn’t cool).
As I got older, other goddesses joined Sri in the pantheon, but it was she who’d first magnetized cinema and dance and fashion and storytelling, all of which have been lifelong passions, for me.
For a great deal of my adulthood, Sri was mostly a silent, stately presence at award shows. I knew by now how reticent she was offscreen, how awkward in interviews she could be. Her calamitous energy was reserved only for the movies, but the movies seemed squarely in the past for her now. Sri-ove had become an act of nostalgia.
But then she returned to films in 2012 with English Vinglish. Somehow, she was exactly as she’d been, and less, and more. Those anime eyes were still storytellers, that smile was still a heartbreaker; but she had a quietude and a reserve now that felt new and a little unsettling. But she was also just as good an actor as she’d ever been, now in an entirely different cinematic milieu (a feminist one, no less, where she spoke up in defense of queer people!). She was doing less now with that marvellous face and that quavery voice and achieving just as much as she ever had. And what a sweet pang it gave me to see her in this character. While once she’d been an outsized projection of my own curbed spirits, she was now a version of my late mother – tireless, timorous in public, often taken for granted by her family.
I’d hoped there’d be more films. There have been two since, and we’ll see a glimpse of her later this year in Zero. But it’s a wrap on the sets for Sridevi, who’d been working since she was practically a baby, whom I’ve been watching since I was one. It’s time to say goodbye, but I don’t quite know how Because what am I saying farewell to, really? A famous stranger? An actor I adored from afar? Or some light and heat rising off my own soul into the unknown, a gleaming strand in my own spiritual DNA? I’m not sure but here goes: Rest in Peace, beloved. I am because you were.
As we mourn Sridevi, we mourn as a family...
Unlike most of you, I didn’t grow up watching Sridevi movies. But I do know what it’s like to lose your childhood idols, at far too young an age and with no notice. I shed tears for Natasha Richardson, for Robin Williams, for Carrie Fisher, and now, I shed them for Sridevi. And every single time, I’ve been told, “Why are you crying? It’s not as if you knew them!”
And that, my cynical friends, is where you’re wrong. We may not have known the star underneath the makeup and the spotlights. We don’t know how Sridevi took her tea in the morning, or what she wore to sleep at night. We don’t know which books she liked to read, or which newspapers she favored. We didn’t know Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan the woman at all, really. But we knew Sridevi, The Star. She was ours, and her loss is a loss for us all.
Movie stars are larger than life; they loom over us on the silver screen like titans..or, in Sridevi’s case, like goddesses. Like a friend, they make us laugh and take us on adventures. Like a mother, they comfort us and give us refuge when we’re beaten down and our hearts are broken. Like a child, they take our last pennies from us when we have almost nothing left to give, but manage to put a smile on our faces while they do it. We may not be part of their family, but they are certainly part of ours.
How many times has your spirit been lifted by Sridevi’s face in a darkened cinema hall? How many of her songs have you danced to at parties? How many of you saw bits and pieces of yourselves represented in her characters, and how much of the essence of her characters have we subconsciously allowed to help form our own identities? Can any of us who loved her say, with absolute certainty, that we would be the same people we are today without her presence in our lives?
That’s the thing about stars. Even after they die, we can still see them burning for years to come, lighting the way through some of our darkest moments. She may be gone, but like any loved one, her legacy will live on.
Mourn her death. Celebrate her life. But above all, carry her with you always.
Iconic – an overused term maybe but in Sridevi's case wholly warranted.
As a child growing up in 80's, drip fed an almost daily diet of Bollywood song and dance, Sridevi captivated from her very first outing. Her cute, cheeky, coquettish smile, those doe eyes, her 'jhatkas' and her owning Bharatnatayam moves and making them her signature dance style, is how I best remember Sridevi.
For me, the yellow sari and her fantastically tongue-in-cheek dance number 'Hawa Hawaii' in Mr India, the drug addicted singer in Jaanbaaz which although only momentary, was the scene-stealing performance of the entire film, and her double role as mother and daughter Pallavi/Pooja in Lamhe has eternally etched Sridevi in my heart and head.
Recently, English Vinglish showed a newer, more mature, perhaps even a little subdued Sridevi and together with her latest starrer Mom, ensured her place at the very top tier of the Indian Film Industry.
Khwaabon Ki Shehzaadi indeed.
Gone too soon Ma'am. God rest your soul.