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Sridevi, the queen of double roles, needed no man to support her on screen

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When Sridevi declared “Kisi ke haath naa aayegi yeh ladki”, you believed her. You got the feeling she could take care of herself.

I was warned that she is an interviewer’s nightmare. The publicist mocked my request for an uninterrupted hour of conversation with her and told me emphatically, “You can try but she just doesn’t talk. You will be done in 10 minutes.”

But I was in no mood to relent. I was going to collect that one hour, come what may. I had waited for this moment. This was the stuff I would be telling my friends’ grandchildren about.

The day I met Sridevi… my screen idol; the person single-handedly responsible for the explosion of little girls dancing to “Mere haathon mein nau nau chudiyaan hain” in ladies’ sangeet across the country; the reason why I grew up believing ‘Cognac sharab nahi hoti’ and that having thunder thighs was not the end of the world. Most importantly, Sridevi will always be the inspiration behind the “Hawa Hawaii” philosophy—when things go awry, just put on your dancing shoes, tell everyone “Bijli girane main hoon aayi” and just wing it.

And how can we forget the chiffon sarees? Nobody filled a chiffon sari on screen quite like her. She went all wet and blue for “Kaate nahin kat-te”, it was red for “Har kisi ko nahin milta” and yellow for “Tere mere honthon pe”.

There is a line in Lamhe where Sridevi, as Pooja, talks about her great unrequited love for her Kunwar ji (who loved her mother by the way) “Main toh unse tabse pyaar karti hoon jabse main paanch saal ki thi.” This could very well be me talking about her.

Sridevi—my one and my only.

So my one hour was definitely well deserved, as I told her when we finally sat down to talk. This was back in 2012 when English Vinglish was releasing. She laughed—just like she did when Rohit called her on the phone in Chandni just before his chopper crashed—and said, “Aiyyo… But I don’t have much to say.”

Just a minute in her presence and the publicist was winning this one. Even before I asked the first question, I could tell she wanted to run away. Clearly, all those stories of her shy nature were not exaggerated. As she got busy handling her dog Coco, who was specially flown in from New York after younger daughter Khushi fell in love with him, I marvelled how someone so quiet and shy can metamorphose into such a powerhouse that she can do anything—play a shape-shifting naagin to Charlie Chaplin to the traumatised six-year-old child trapped in a young woman’s body in Sadma. How did she do that?

What was this secret relationship that she shared with the camera?

She pondered about this and said, “I think it has to do with the fact that I started acting when I was too young to even realise what it was. I was just four years old when I faced the camera for the Tamil film Kandan Karunai, where I played Lord Murugan. I loved sitting in the chair as they put make-up on my face. I felt as if I was in some other world. I remember they used to call me parrot. I could mug up two-page dialogues in five minutes. That’s why it was no problem for me to do Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada films when I didn’t understand the language.”

As the first female superstar of the country, Sridevi broke many glass ceilings. She famously charged more than many of her male co-stars, and was the queen of double roles (Chaalbaaz, Lamhe, Khuda Gawah, Guru, Gurudev). Out of this lot, Khuda Gawah must be duly noted as despite being an Amitabh Bachchan-starrer, it was Sridevi who had the double role.

Such was her power and appeal that she could get away with blue murder on screen. There was nothing that a male co-star could do that Sridevi couldn’t. She could play the booze-guzzling Manju in Chaalbaaz, yet be the audience favourite. In Mr India, she was not quite children-friendly, yet she was adored. She could be woman, girl, child, diva—at her command. She could be vulnerable—with that quivering lower lip and those perpetual sheen of unshed tears in her beautiful wide eyes—yet not a damsel in distress.

When she declared “Kisi ke haath naa aayegi yeh ladki”, you believed her. You got the feeling she could take care of herself. She just exuded that sense of independence and power. If nothing else, then as a viewer you had full faith that she would get out of the situation by using her brand of ‘cute-klutz’. Indeed her comic timing and penchant for physical comedy ought to have been patented.

And those dances! “Mere haathon mein”, “Hawa hawai”, “Morni baaga maa”, “Main Teri Dushman”, “Naino Mein Sapna”… the list goes on. Interestingly, when you remember Sridevi’s songs, you will most definitely ‘see’ her in the song; her facial expressions had their own grammar. As a fangirl, I could never decide whether I should see her do the step first, or her expressions or her adaa. How did she manage to do so much in a split second? How could her face be so alive?

Surprisingly, she didn’t think much of her dancing skills. “I enjoy dancing. I feel it, I worked hard on it, but I don’t think I’m a perfect dancer.”

Directors vouched for her discipline and professionalism. It’s documented how she lost her father while shooting for Lamhe and returned after his funeral and shot a comedy scene. I remember when we spoke about this incident she got emotional and started sipping her warm water and cajoled me to eat something. When I politely refused she joked, “You are making me talk so much and making me remember so many things but you are not listening to me. Aise bhi koi karta hai?”

Sridevi credited her work ethic to her innate sense of obedience and narrated a sweet story about how when she was five years old, her mother made her sit on the parapet of the neighbour’s wall and told her she’d be back in five minutes. But she returned after four hours and Sridevi was still sitting on the parapet! Clearly, she carried forward the same obedience to her work.

She took great pride in being her mother’s daughter and hoped she could be the same source of strength for her girls, Jhanvi and Khushi. Being a mother was her life’s greatest joy, more than acting, she told me in the interview.

It’s sad that she won’t be around to see Jhanvi on the big screen when her debut film Dhadak releases.

Fifty-four is no age to go. After English Vinglish and Mom, she had raised our expectations for more on-screen outings, which are dashed forever. Her words: “I don’t have much to say” reverberate in my mind as I write this. Her passing feels personal because she was mine. She was a part of my life. She was a huge chunk of my life’s best memories. She was my bliss. She was my Sridevi.

And yes, now it’s my turn to tell her, aise bhi koi karta hai?

Harneet Singh is a Mumbai based film journalist and screenwriter.

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  1. Do you remember her ability to play the petulant heiress in Ladlaa? (“you understand? You better understand!! She snapped) The hassled wife in Judaai who agrees to sell her husband after years of poverty? How she played those greys so easily. The absolute ease with which she pulled off those costumes in Tohfa? The vulnerability in Gumrah? The grandness of the heist of Roop Ki Raani Choro Ka Raja? How she basically gave India a “Naagin dance” of its own? Her best dance duets were with Amrish Puri, Bob Cristo in HawaHawai and Sunny Deol in Chaalbaaz! How she channeled Charlie Chaplin even better than Raj Kapoor? How she straddled Indian and western dance? How in HawaHawai she could make fun of formal dancing and still be the best dancer? I wish we had appreciated her more when she was alive instead of focussing on her personal life, and judging her choices. I wish we had told her what she meant to us when she was around. I wish all these exuberant actresses of 80s / 90s are told how much we loved them and the effort they put in, in terrible conditions to build a “Bollywood”, instead of clubbing all of 80s and 90s as regressive and the worst cinema. I wish they are told that it’s easier to pull off author backed realistic cinema, cut down on makeup, wear cotton saris of now, than what they were expected to do. I wish we’d told Sridevi we appreciated the energy she put into dances including the gibberish: Gadbad ho gayi, seeti baj gayi. And how nothing was lovelier than her sarcasm dripping “Balmaa” to Shakti Kapoor.

  2. Let us all pray her soul rests in peace and incarnated for more useful cosmic role and responsibility. Though 54 was not an age to go but perhaps this costume for soul in this life was only for the intense experience she gained and flutter she created in the life around her. God Bless her soul.

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