Those who grew up on the corpulent diet of the ‘80s’ mainstream cinema would remember that they had to make a strange choice. Either you were a Jayaprada fan or you were a Sridevi loyalist. It was based on the actors’ respective screen image. If you followed the former, it meant you liked a comely, conservative girl, who followed the morality of the society. But if you were a Sridevi fan, it’s complicated. It signified you wanted to be with a girl who spoke her mind and who could stand up to you as an equal. She could shed a tear but it was her sunshine smile, her mischievous ways that won hearts and became a tool for those filmmakers who wanted to push the envelop ever so slightly in an era where heroines were either cardboard dolls or devis. Sridevi was invariably the one who crossed the proverbial ‘lakshman rekha’ in family dramas like “Suhaagan”. At that time, it was branded as a rebellion of sorts, today it is has almost become the norm.
In most of her major hits, Sridevi played characters who would not conform to patriarchal values easily. Be it as the ravishing shrew, difficult to be tamed, in ‘Himmatwala’ or a ichchadhari nagin in “Nagina”, Sridevi knew how to make a monkey out of a man. Kamal Haasan showed the process brilliantly in “Sadma”. As the Afghan tribal girl Benazir in “Khuda Gawah”, who rides a horse in buzkashi and refuses to marry Badshah Khan unless he brings her opponent’s head to her. Badshah Khan was played by Amitabh Bachchan, who till then was known to play characters who avenged the wrongs committed to their father or mother. With the audience by her side, writers and directors had to give her equitable space even in a Bachchan film. Jeetendra owes a major share of success in his second innings to the oomph that Sridevi brought to those otherwise inane PT exercises in the name of choreography. She never took her grudges against the ‘system’ to the media. She didn’t have the skills to intellectualise the gender disparity. She fought the box office battles and won her space.
By the time of Mr India, she was cavorting the male audience without the help of the hero. Released in 1987, the year when Roop Kanwar committed Sati, here Sridevi was singing “Kate Nahin Katte Din Ye Raat” in one of the most evocative expressions of female desire on screen after “Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo.” But you equally believed her when she lip synced to “Kisi Ke Haath Na Ayegi Ye Ladki”. Yes, that alcohol guzzling Manju in “Chaalbaaz”. She was offered the part of a drug addict by Feroz Khan in “Jaanbaaz” because it went with her image. It was Sridevi who made the audience empathise with the vulnerable Seema with those big deep eyes that would well up anytime she commanded.
When the script demanded, she effortlessly transformed into an avenging one woman army. In “Nagina”, she was the hero taking on Amrish Puri, the biggest villain of his time. In “Nigahen”, it was Anupam Kher and in “Army” it was Danny Dengzongpa and who can forget the flogging that Shakti Kapoor got in “Chaalbaaz”. In these films, the ‘heroes’, Rishi Kapoor and Sunny Deol, were reduced to guest artists.
After the box office failure of the ‘meaningful’ ‘Solva Savan’, she was re-introduced as a bimbette with “Himmatwala” but Sridevi refused to be boxed. She kept on reminding us that there is more to her than a beautiful face. She started her career as a child artist playing god but up North she wanted to be a diva. With the rare combination of innocence and sex appeal, something which Kangana Ranaut promises many years later, she played the game on her own terms. Unlike Zeenat Aman, her screen presence had an unmistakable Indian touch. Unlike Hema Malini, she was ready to flaunt her body. And unlike any other actress of her time, she had an impeccable comic timing. She could match not only the heroes but also the best of comedians.
Perhaps that’s why she had a pan Indian appeal and was loved by audience in all age groups for different reasons. In “Shola Aur Shabnam”, released in 1992, when she was very much one of the top heroines of the industry, there is a gag where a bunch of army recruits, played by Govinda, Raja Bundela, etc, make use of their in-charge’s (Anupam Kher) fascination for Sridevi. She could be a backslapping friend as well as somebody’s wet dream in the same film. Take Mr India, and perhaps that’s why she was offered so many double roles.
Made for melodrama, she simply loved the camera and it reciprocated in kind. Once the arc lights turned on, she opened her inner recesses and allowed audience to be part of her weakness and insecurities. When an actor drops the curtain of ‘acting’, even mediocre directors could not fail him or her. Her eyes spoke volumes, at times conveying more than one rasa, the biggest of them was the childlike sense of wonder which came through best in “Sadma” but it was there in some proportion in all her films which she could bring in with a twinkle in her eyes. It was the strength of this intangible that added warmth to clichéd moments like that speech towards the end in “English Vinglish”. You know it is predictable but still could not resist yourself from shedding a tear. That is the strength of good melodrama. Perhaps that’s why not many could make out that her voice was dubbed for at least first five-six years of her career in Hindi films. It was reduced to a matter of trivia. That’s why even bad films – there were many – could not harm Sridevi. Like Amitabh Bachchan, she became the complete ‘entertainment’ package as her characters could converse with each individual in the theatre. And that’s why she could easily transcend from the universe of Raghavendra Rao and Harmesh Malhotra to that of Yash Chopra and Shekhar Kapur.
When the decade of action melted into romance, Yash Chopra made Sridevi the face of change with Chandni. The film also completed her transition from a South Indian import to a true blue Hindi film heroine who reflected its dominating Punjabi colour. The acting style was getting more internalised and Sridevi responded by dubbing her own lines. She shed weight for the film and her svelte figure soon became the new benchmark for the Hindi film heroine.
Last year, when one asked her about this transition, she pointed out about her experience in the South with legendary filmmakers Balu Mahendra and K. Balachander who tested her in the ‘art’ side of cinema. “They gave me the tools,” she said, adding that “Yash Chopra and Shekhar Kapur allowed her to flourish.” She kept the fire burning. Of course, she was bewitching in the chiffons of Chandni but she knew she could deliver a Pallavi in Lamhe or later Sashi Godbole in English Vinglish and Devki in Mom. She was brought as a beautiful prop to Hindi cinema but Sridevi kept nurturing it with flesh and blood.