There is a crucial scene in the ’80s blockbuster Tohfa where two sisters Lalita (Sridevi) and Janaki (Jaya Prada) are bursting to confide in each other. Lalita flips the coin to decide who speaks first. The coin flies up, up and out of their humble cottage through a providential slit in the ceiling and perches on the tiled roof, never to return with its verdict to terra firma.
All these years, seeing younger heroines rise to histrionic highs riding refreshing scripts that bypass formula and embrace life, I used to mentally flip that coin, asking myself how Sridevi, the first modern Hindi film heroine who could carry a film on her shoulders, would have fared in this brave new Bollywood.
Through 15 years of judaai (her last film with the same title released in 1997), I kept faith that the answer would be a jubilant thumbs-up. But unless and until she made a comeback, there was no telling if the coin would land heads up.
With the release of English Vinglish, it has finally landed at the theatres and boy, am I proud that Sriji’s stellar turn as Shashi, the ‘Hindi only’ housewife, is turning heads!
On October 5, the day of the film’s release, I was in Amritsar. En route to the Golden Temple, I called my friend Subhodip. We are batchmates but in a school as populous as South Point that’s hardly a password for proximity for students not in the same section. It was our common infatuation for Sridevi that had made our paths cross. “She is looking so frail in the promos. Not a trace of make-up. No glam outfits. Not even a dance number. I am terrified. The film will flop,” he blurted out, breathless and defeated.
“Do you really expect her to run around trees, pots and over-sized pitchers singing Nainon mein sapna in bejewelled Amrapali costumes at 49?” I tried to reason with him. “Would that be real?”
“I don’t care. That’s how I remember her through my school days,” Subhodip sounded petulant. I empathised with his dilemma. Sridevi, vibrant and vivacious, was one of our most abiding growing-up experiences. With her return on screen, my friend was seeking a return to his childhood.
“Do you want her to do more films? Then support this one,” I told him firmly and marched into the shrine, covering my head with the mandatory dupatta. The walk by the holy water tank took me back by two decades and more — to the list of her films I maintained in the pre-Wikipedia days, the dialogues I would rattle off from Chaalbaaz at tiffin time, the phuchka bet I had won for correctly recalling the number of costume changes in Mitwa, a song from Chandni, sitting bewitched through her live Hawa hawai performance at the Hope ’86 concert in Salt Lake stadium…. Then meeting her face to face on January 6, 2002, when she returned to Calcutta accompanying husband Boney Kapoor whose production Koi Mere Dil Se Poochhe was to be Esha Deol’s launch pad.
I had become a journalist by then and my editor, knowing my fixation, had let me accompany the photographer. Of course, I would be on duty — to write a caption for the Esha Deol-Hema Malini picture!
I had been the only one to direct a question to Sridevi at the film’s press conference. As I had confessed on the mic, it was only to hear her voice. A smile escaped me as I recalled how I had dodged the hotel security later to reach the floor she was on, pressed the bell to her suite with trembling fingers, got her autograph and extracted a promise that she would take my call to her residence landline. She did, two weeks later, on my third attempt. That 10-minute conversation, between a fan trying to bridge the reel and the real, and a homemaker with a starry past, had endeared her further.
Hands clasped, as I prayed for the film’s success, my mobile beeped. Subhodip’s ecstatic message reported how the online reviews were raving about English Vinglish. Prayer answered, it was time to post the review links on my Facebook page and wait till I could catch the film back home.
Star vs screen avatar
Despite living next door to a multiplex, I choose a single-screen theatre to watch English Vinglish because that’s how I remember my Sridevi films. It is Monday noon. The stalls are empty but the balcony has a healthy turnout.
In the first few minutes, I react to her screen presence like a concerned relative. Why has she lost weight? Had she been keeping well? Does she look happy? If Shashi warms the cockles of my heart it is also because her story seems so close to Sridevi’s own — language worries (both English and Hindi), a need for support, lack of self-confidence (Mahesh Bhatt had said one could dismiss her as a piece of furniture on the sets but once the camera started rolling, she came to life as if by magic).... So in rooting for Shashi, I was backing not just my favourite actress but also identifying with the human being I had briefly interacted with.
Soon, as Shashi reaches New York, still as docile and demure as in the opening scenes where she spends her waking hours minding home and hearth, a part of me yearns to see her dolled up like the Katrinas and Kareenas in similar foreign settings. She would still look like a million dollars, I preen. Back in her reign, it was Sridevi, the star, who shone through almost every frame. But here she has abdicated all claims to stardom in favour of Shashi, the persona. Her speaking voice is no more the high-pitched sweet-16 pretence. It now throbs, shaky-shrill, with a diffident woman’s emotional highs and lows. No artificial eyelashes line those magical orbs that used to twinkle with come-hither allure. They remain as eloquently expressive — but only in pleasure or perplexity, plea or pain.
As she settles into her sister’s house, tries to place an order for a snack at a cafe and is humiliated, signs up for classes to learn English, Shashi draws me into her ordinary life, making me a part of her daily struggles with the language, her attempts to please her family, her little-big triumphs....
In the final scene of her niece’s wedding, when the rest break into a jig, it is the final test of temptation — for both of us. The soundtrack is persuasive: Ao ji ao, thumka lagao. Will she? Won’t she? Thunder Thighs and Twinkle Toes firmly wrapped away from view in a sari, she does. But only a bit. Sridevi, for her fans, might have been born to dance. But Shashi, as her husband joked, was born to make laddoos. “Meri favourite subject mein fail ho gayi toh doosre subject mein pass hone ka kya fayda?” her voice as if reached out to me with the question as Shashi decided to forego the English certificate test to make laddoos at the wedding instead.
If an actress fails in the acid test of acting, what’s the use of proving to the world that she still looked and moved like a star? Touché. Point taken.
No hero woos her in this film, with song and dance or without. The husband takes her for granted. The only whiff of romance Shashi herself nips in the bud. “Mujhe pyaar ki zaroorat nahin, zaroorat hai to thodi izzat ki,” she says of the attention from a French classmate.
When Shashi delivers the final speech in English with aplomb, Sridevi, the actress, earns that respect.
As I walk out, I realise I did not miss Sridevi, the star. Shashi has won. Was it also because along with the actor, the admirer too had come of age?