She lived much of her life before time

If the soft face and tough physique gave Dharmendra and Sunny Deol a unique charm, it was her baby face on a cabaret-dancer body that gave Sridevi an appeal quite heady.

By Bharathi S. Pradhan
  • Published 26.02.18

Boney Kapoor’s son Arjun Kapoor and Rekha at Anil Kapoor’s house in Mumbai on Sunday. Several Pakistani public figures, led by federal information minister Maryam Aurangzeb, voiced shock at the death. Actress Sajal Aly Khan, who acted with Sridevi in Mom last year, said: “My experience of working with her was exceptional and she cared for me like a mother would for her child. I just feel as if I have again lost my mother.” Adnan Ali Siddiqui, who too was part of the film, Mahira Khan, 
Ali Zafar, Fawad Khan and Imran Abbas were among those who mourned her loss. Nadeem Madviwalla a top film distributor, recalled that Indian films were banned in Pakistan when Sridevi was at her best. “We used to watch Indian films on VCRs and never missed a Sridevi release,” he said. Cricketers Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, who are in Dubai, paid their condolences to the family. Report by PTI, Pictures by AFP

If the soft face and tough physique gave Dharmendra and Sunny Deol a unique charm, it was her baby face on a cabaret-dancer body that gave Sridevi an appeal quite heady.

She had a similar contrast in her personality off-screen too. It was evident at my very first meeting with Sridevi in Rajahmundry where she was shooting for her first full-fledged Hindi film, Himmatwala (1983) with Jeetendra. At that time, her sister Srilatha and she were inseparable and very happy to meet people who'd flown down from Mumbai to cover the shoot and meet the new heroine.

Many of us had already seen Sridevi's confident work in films like Solva Sawan (1979) which was a remake of the Tamil hit, 16 Vayathinile, and much later the very impressive Sadma (1983), also the remake of a much-acknowledged Tamil film. So when she came aboard Himmatwala, she'd already made her mark as a bankable and saleable siren in Tamil and other south Indian cinema. But a break in Hindi films with its pan-India audience was special.

Sridevi, who was still to be comfortable with Hindi and spoke hesitant English, was thrilled to find someone who could jabber with her in Tamil. When I told her I'd just got married, she excitedly jumped up to congratulate me in Tamil.

That trait of simplicity stayed with Sridevi through all the vicissitudes of life - and she saw too many unpleasant ones at too young an age not to be scarred in some way.

Four years was no age to lose your childhood and your schoolbooks to studios and make-up - the bane of a child artiste pushed to make a living by an unrelenting mother. Sridevi was a child who hadn't even turned five and had no clue what she was doing when she first faced the camera as Lord Muruga in the Tamil film Thunaivan (released in 1969).

Thirteen years, and still clueless, was also too tender an age to doll up in a sari and look grown-up as the leading lady of Moondru Mudichu (1976), a Tamil film directed by the legendary K. Balachander. Coincidentally, all the three young actors of that Tamil film who went on to become huge, mega stars, are in the news today for different reasons - Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan as two aspiring netas of 2018 while Sridevi has much of the country in mourning.

Fifty-four years was no age to call for a pack-up.

Just before she left for a family wedding in Ras-al-Khaimah where two days later she passed away, friends had met her at the Marriott in Juhu. She'd finished her workout in the gym (a must for her) and was getting herself a beverage at the BBC (a confectioner) there. She didn't look like someone who'd suffer sudden cardiac arrest the next week.

But Sri was someone who lived much of her life before time.

Back in Rajahmundry where the Jumping Jack was hopping around a green field in white trousers, Sridevi seemed almost too shy to look you in the face and hold a conversation. But that vanished the moment the camera was switched on as she seductively matched Jeetendra's pace and danced around him wearing black, knee-length tights and a blingy tight sleeveless top.

The song, typical of the early '80s, was Ladki nahi tu lakdi ka khamba hai and the wonder girl with thunder thighs and child-woman sensuality seduced the north of India overnight.

With her discomfort in Hindi, her early films were not even dubbed by her. But it was her ability to turn on the male in the audience that producers repeatedly and unabashedly tapped - films like Tohfa (1984) and Masterji (1985) followed.

It was only in 1987, when Shekhar Kapur cast her in Mr India and she did those absolutely delightful song sequences like Hawa Hawaii that Sridevi began to be taken seriously as an actress. But in that film too, Boney had challenged his director that nobody could make Sri look more sensuous than Feroz Khan did when he shot her in a sari for the song Har kisiko nahin milta... in Jaanbaaz (1986).

Shekhar rose to the challenge, put Sri in a blue sari and the result was the steamy Kaate nahin katate ye din ye raat... in Mr India. Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu is famous for its fireworks. It also produced a bomb named Sridevi who was born there.

Mr India was her introduction to producer Boney Kapoor who was married but besotted. Sri was at that time in a relationship with Mithun Chakraborty, also married.

Two examples of sheer instinct proved right at that time. Boney's wife Mona had a battle-axe named Sattee Shourie for a mother. Sattee had told me that Sridevi had her sights set on her son-in-law, Boney. It had seemed incredulous at that time.

But Mithun too had sensed it because one day he asked Sri to prove to him that Boney was like a brother-figure to her: she obliged him by tying a rakhi to Boney.

Ultimately, Mithun couldn't give Sri what she wanted. His wife Yogita Bali had told many of us that she would never divorce her husband, not even if he took on another wife. Sri didn't want to be the second woman.

Even while she gained respect as a professional actress and a complete package as an entertainer, her personal life crumbled. Her mother died in a freak surgery in the US where the wrong side of her brain was operated. She sued, Boney by her side. When she won, her sister Srilatha legally sought her share of the "inheritance".

It was a classic case of the damsel-in-distress and the knight-in-shining armour meeting when Sridevi one day had a problem in the hotel where she was staying and Boney fetched up to take her home.

"It's totally platonic," he'd assured me. "You don't understand, she is all alone in this world."

Sridevi. PTI file picture.

But her legal battle in the US and his joining her there turned into a situation where wife Mona soon began to seem like the other woman.

The cardiac arrest that took Sridevi's life in Dubai will spark off a debate on whether measures taken to lose weight and look young took their toll on her.

Many have also remarked on a cruel coincidence. Mona Kapoor died (at age 48, even younger than Sridevi) on March 25, 2012, two months before her son Arjun Kapoor could make his debut in the theatres with Ishaqzaade (May 11, 2012).

Sridevi too won't be around to see her daughter Jahnvi's debut this July when her first film Dhadak is released.

Whichever way you look at it, the death of Sridevi on February 24, 2018, was untimely and tragic. RIP to a simple girl and an incredible actress.

• Bharathi S. Pradhan is a senior journalist and an author