I once ‘ambushed’ Sridevi for an interview after the release of her film ‘English Vinglish’ and she admitted she was feeling like a newcomer again.
On an early April afternoon in 2013 I was asked by a philanthropist friend if I would drop by at an outdoors charity-sale-cum-exhibition she was organising at New Delhi’s Lodhi (earlier Aman) hotel. Sridevi, I was told, was a patron and she might drop by too.
I found the event was a heavy-duty charity PR gig. There were lots of TV crews present. There was a buzz as Sridevi arrived on the scene. My only acquaintance with her was on Mumbai-Delhi flights where her husband Boney and I often chatted, and she went back to some reading or a snooze after exchanging greetings. I would routinely pitch for a Walk the Talk, but she would half-giggle and firmly decline. Boney would say she is shy, and promise to persuade her to agree some day.
Since an NDTV crew was also shooting the NGO/ charity event, I “ambushed” her for a chat. She agreed, though she was to say later she never realised it was a full Walk the Talk interview. She thought it was going to be a couple of questions about the charity and her support for it. She wasn’t prepared for a full interview and, true confession, nor was I.
Boney later told me I had done the right thing. It broke her diffidence, he said, and that she was pleased with the conversation.
She left us so young this morning. As we grieve, remember and recall our own moments with her, in movie halls, personal or professional encounters, here is an edited transcript of our Walk the Talk. You can also watch the NDTV recording here:
SG: I am at an unusual setting — an exhibition of 50 top designers in Delhi from around the country for charity — and my guest today is none other than Sridevi. Welcome to Walk the Talk. In which language do we converse — English, Hindi…?
Sridevi: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam…
SG: I draw the line there. I can handle English, Hindi, Vinglish, Hinglish. You move further south and I am in trouble…
Sridevi: That’s fine.
SG: Nice to see you in Delhi. What brings you here?
Sridevi: I am here for the NGO Sahachari Foundation. They’ve put up a great exhibition of designers from all over the country. It’s for a good cause, for charity. That is why I’m here.
SG: So your arrival in philanthropy, is it to do with the new phase in your life?
Sridevi: Well, yes. But it just happened. I never planned this comeback at all.
SG: This new phase in philanthropy has also coincided with your comeback. Is this a confident, new, independent Sridevi after 15 years of purdah, if I may say so?
Sridevi: Well, this is because of my children and my husband. They encouraged me to come back and do some films and whatever else I’m doing. Otherwise, I was happy just taking care of my children. So that’s it, I’m here.
SG: So it’s a new innings now?
Sridevi: Yes, absolutely. It’s a new experience, and I’m feeling like a newcomer all over again.
SG: How does someone like you who has made love to the camera and vice versa for such a long time feel like a newcomer when you again face the camera? It’s the same thing, isn’t it?
Sridevi: Not at all, because with every film, you feel new. You feel excited and unsure about yourself. You are insecure, and you are thrilled. So many feelings put together. So, it’s special.
SG: Sridevi insecure in front of the camera?
Sridevi: Yes, well, sometimes. I always wonder if I have done the job right. Even after seeing the film, I wish I could have done a better job.
SG: After English Vinglish, did you feel like that? Or did you think it was perfect?
Sridevi: No, I am never satisfied with my work. Even though the director and my family always say it is good, I am not happy.
SG: But with your earlier films, the big hits, do you think, ‘I could have done this differently’?
SG: Go over some of them. Chandni, Lamhe, Chaalbaaz, Mr India…see I am not that poorly informed.
Sridevi: I am impressed! They are all different films, different kinds of roles and I am thankful to my directors and producers for having trusted me and given me such brilliant work. Especially, English Vinglish. After 15 years, I never thought I would get such a good opportunity. Gauri (Shinde) is a superb director. And, of course, Balki is one of my favourite directors.
SG: There were other novelties in that experience. For example, a woman director and, if I may say so, a director much younger than you.
Sridevi: I never asked her age, but maybe she is younger to me, yes. This was the first time I worked with a woman director and it was a great experience.
SG: What is the difference between working with a male director and a woman director?
Sridevi: It doesn’t matter to me if the director is a man or a woman. But with a woman director, there is a comfort level, and I can share more.
SG: Give us some examples of the things you might share with a woman director that you felt awkward sharing with a man.
Sridevi: We giggle a lot, and we laugh.
SG: You can giggle with men too.
Sridevi: No, not much. I am a little reserved. But I was very comfortable with Gauri. Sometimes when you are not well, you can tell a lady director, ‘Look I have a problem. I am not well’. With a male director, it is difficult to communicate that. I have to go via my husband and say, ‘Please tell him’.
SG: And when the husband wasn’t there, then go via whom?
Sridevi: Before, it used to be my mother.
SG: Going back to your first innings…it’s been 25 years since Mr India. Do you remember any experience from the film?
Sridevi: The major sequence I had done was the Charlie Chaplin one. It was quite hard for me, we took 10-15 days to shoot that. I was not well. But the credit goes to director Shekhar Kapur and of course, I am not saying this because he’s my husband, but he (Boney Kapoor) was one of the best producers I worked with. He has so much patience and is best for the directors. He gives his best.
SG: Tell us about Hawa Hawai.
Sridevi: It was a funny song and I felt very funny making all kinds of expressions. I was not at all comfortable. But the director and Saroj Khan, the choreographer, pushed me and I followed blindly.
SG: I believe you put real fruits in your hat?
Sridevi: Yes. Because in one of the scenes, I had to pluck one from my hat and eat it.
SG: So, that is the remarkable thing about shooting because you could do something very serious and something very funny. You were the best female comedian of your time with a wonderful sense of comic timing. Did you see yourself as a funny woman in real life?
Sridevi: Yes, my husband calls me a joker. My daughter says, ‘Ma, my friends think you are very cool.’
SG: Just to be funny, will you do an out-and-out comedy now?
Sridevi: I would love to. I always enjoyed doing comedy scenes and roles. Even at home, I am very cool and jovial and very funny with my close friends, or my daughters, or my husband.
SG: Why this reputation that Sridevi is a very quiet person?
Sridevi: I am very quiet. I am very media-shy. I am only comfortable with people I am close to.
SG: So this new film and this new fame. What does one see going ahead now? More films or more of this…more charity?
Sridevi: Charity has always been there. It’s not that I just started now. Regarding films, I don’t know. I don’t plan things. If anything comes up that excites me…
SG: Films these days have changed. Have you seen any of the recent films lately?
SG: So, which ones have you enjoyed watching?
Sridevi: I loved Vicky Donor. I loved Taare Zameen Par. Some commercial films are also very good. Wanted is our film, but it is a very good commercial film. I loved Salman in that. And I loved Chak De! India, it is Shah Rukh’s best performance. And of course, I loved Barfi. Ranbir is outstanding. Kahaani…
SG: Which one of the recent roles would you have loved to play? Barfi, Kahaani…
Sridevi: Kahaani has a very powerful character. It is a heroine-oriented film. When you see it, it holds you. It’s really good.
SG: What’s this thing about you Tamil women? You come from Tamil Nadu and you rule Hindi cinema. You, Rekha, Vidya Balan now…
Sridevi: Yes. There is a long list. Vyjayanthimalaji, Hema Maliniji, Waheeda Rehmanji, Vidya Balan…I don’t know about myself. But I feel they all are dedicated, focussed and hard-working.
SG: Or do you think it is the training of Tamil cinema?
Sridevi: South Indians themselves are very committed and hard-working. I am not saying others are not. Nowadays, all heroines are hard-working. Look at Katrina. She didn’t even know the language, but look at where she has reached.
I am not sure she knows it yet…but she has done fine. But she manages. In that case, even I don’t know Hindi properly. I still manage all the other languages also.
SG: Women could have one serious complaint with Hindi cinema. Male stars can carry on into their 40s and 50s. Remember that sequence from The Dirty Picture, where Naseeruddin Shah in his 60s is romancing girls in their 20s. Somebody who used to be his heroine till the other day becomes his mother in the film. Hindi cinema has been unkind to women because beyond their 30s, it becomes tough. Do you think Hindi cinema has been unfair to older women? No Meryl Streep. No Julia Roberts.
Sridevi: Definitely, compared to international standards, it is very sad. But things are changing now. Especially after a few films, people have begun to realise that it’s not the woman, it is the character, it is the subject. The script is the hero today for some films.
SG: Or the script is the heroine. So Sridevi chose this time to come back. Because you restored the balance in the ’90s and you now, along with Vidya Balan and others, once again restore the gender balance in Hindi cinema.
Sridevi: Well, I don’t think so. They are far superior to me. I feel I am still a newcomer after 15 years. I hope I get more good films and good scripts. I’m looking forward to it. Let’s see.
SG: Now we know why you are a superstar, Sridevi, or Sri, as you prefer to be called, because even after a 15-year break, you come back and say you feel like a newcomer and you reinvent yourself.
Sridevi: Yes, I am totally a director’s actor and maybe that is the reason I feel I am a newcomer.
SG: India’s first woman superstar now has the courage to come back after 15 years, at a very good time for women in Hindi cinema.
Sridevi: I think so. Everything has gone well for me. The script. The director. The producer and, of course, my family to have been there to back me and encourage me. Everything worked well for me and the audience loved it.
SG: And the timing, Sri. You always had the gift of timing. You’ve chosen right. So, welcome back.
Sridevi: It took me 15 years to choose the timing.
SG: All your fans are still around and they are waiting. I think they are waiting for the next one now.
Sridevi: I hope so. Even I am waiting.
SG: Thank you for finding the time.