For more than twenty years, she had lit up screens in Madras Presidency, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, starting as a child artiste, and credited as “Baby Sridevi”.
What was it that drove her to the North? Was it the lack of recognition for her acting skills, for being consistently overlooked at award ceremonies even as her male counterparts swept the silver? Was it the exploitation of her face and body? Was it the glamour and money that beckoned in Bollywood?
There was an odd vulnerability about the Sridevi who grew up before the cameras in the Tamil and Telugu industries, a vulnerability that those whose introduction to her came through Hindi cinema will never know.
Baby Sridevi was sought after for her expressive face, her natural ability to stay in character without exaggeration, and impeccable dialogue delivery. She would go on to become a caricature of all her talents in Bollywood, which would also make her a superstar. But to see the Sridevi whom cameras loved before she learned to love them, one only has to watch the MGR film Nam Naadu (1969), or Agathiyar (1972), or any of the Malayalam and Telugu mythological films in which she acted during the Sixties and early Seventies.
Then came her breakthrough role, through K Balachander, the sort of role most actresses wait for their entire careers – Moondru Mudichu (1976), in which she plays the love-interest-turned-stepmother of Rajnikanth. Rajnikanth is the villain, effectively killing her lover – played by Kamal Haasan – so he can have her for himself; through a series of turns, she ends up in his house, contemplating marriage to a widower. So complex is her character that she chooses to marry the widower after learning he is the father of her lover’s killer. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a frustrated Rajnikanth – enraged when she calls herself his mother – grabs her and begins to tear off her clothes.
“No mother gets angry when her child tears her clothes,” she says, calmly, rendering his attack impotent.
When she had the chance, Sridevi could pull off character transformations with finesse – in Moondram Pirai (1982), where she had to go from child-woman to snooty beauty; in 16 Vayathinile (1977), where she had to go from snooty beauty to devoted lover; much later, in Devaraagam (1996), which takes her character through an incredible arc.
But there was a far more interesting transformation in Sridevi herself, one that could be used to sell her films – she was no longer a child; she was long-legged and voluptuous. Bharathiraja made her lean down from swings and trees; he made her stand under waterfalls and wade through rivers. Other directors followed his lead. Rare was the film in which her sarees didn’t slip off her shoulder, where there was no gratuitous scene of her character dressing or undressing; her clothes got shorter and tighter. Even in her most demure roles, she would be cast in dream sequences where the camera could ogle her curves.
In most of the songs in the film Shankarlal (1981), she is squeezed into a little bodices and chemises which accentuate her cleavage every time she moves. In the song 'Ilamayenum Poongkaatru' from Pagalil Oru Iravu (1979), she wears a micromini which is further torn until her legs are entirely exposed. In a simulated sex scene, her co-actor caresses her quite explicitly between shots of bees pollinating flowers.
If Tamil cinema began to love her body more than it loved her face, Telugu cinema had cut to the chase without even shooting the rest – men who were twice, perhaps thrice, her age thrust out their arthritic knees as she gyrated and grinded against them.
With no mentors in any of the industries which wanted her, she had to make the most of what she got.
She did, and how. Once Bollywood came calling, she never looked back. She was simultaneously sultry, bubbly, and funny. She would often caricature the South Indian, as was Bollywood’s wont; she would roll around on hay and sand and grass in chiffon sarees; she would do Chaplinesque routines and Helenesque dances; she would be elevated and roasted in turns by the media. Along with the exponentially increased money and fame came attention, rarely kind.
Gossip columnists delighted in calling her a home-wrecker. Tabloids sniggered that she had become the “Bengali Bourani” and was eating off Mithun Chakraborty’s unwashed plate. A decade later, they would chortle at her having become the “sanskari bahu”, serving laddoos to guests at brother-in-law Sanjay Kapoor’s wedding.
Film writer Bhawana Somaiya said in an interview that Bollywood media, which had famously dubbed Sridevi “Thunder Thighs”, would also call her “Ask Mummy” because that was her stock response to intrusive questions. She was always accompanied by her mother or sister, sometimes both, at film shoots, and it’s not hard to figure out why.
The actress Lakshmi once told a Tamil television channel how she was witness to a perverse incident involving an 11-year-old Sridevi. The shooting of a film in which they were both acting had been stalled for a couple of years. Sridevi was playing a boy in the film. The director insisted she only wear a cloth around her waist; a 9-year-old Sridevi had been flat-chested and unembarrassed about the costume. Two years later, her body had changed, and she hesitated. Her mother intervened, and insisted that shooting could only resume if Sridevi were given a skin-coloured blouse. She eventually finished the role with the blouse, and strategically-placed jewellery to camouflage its cuts.
Her mother must have been a formidable woman to take on a director in the Seventies. Tamil cinema has often used prepubescent girls to play boys or younger children. Jagathalaprathapan (1944) is famous for a snake dance performed by a 10-year-old Kumari Kamala, wearing only a dhoti. As late as 2002 and as respected a director as Mani Ratnam had Keerthana, then 11 and playing an 8-year-old, run around wearing only panties, in Kannathil Muthamittaal.
Perhaps Sridevi’s mother had had fewer battles to fight in Bombay. Or perhaps the bounty was higher. Sridevi has often been compared to Hemamalini, Rekha, Vyjayanthimala and Waheeda Rahman, Southern belles who conquered Hindi cinema. Of these women, only Vyjayanthimala had had a career in Tamil cinema before she entered Bollywood and it was neither as long nor as successful as Sridevi’s.
The South not only lost Sridevi the actress, but Sridevi the stunner. She was loved for her large eyes, but also for the sparkle she brought, a beauty that was not conventional. In Bollywood, she had to fit a mould, and her appearance changed. The snub nose became aquiline, the large black eyes turned hazel, the chubby cheeks went sallow, the pleasant plumpness disappeared into a sylph.
She lost her mother soon after her marriage to Boney Kapoor, and settled into domestic life, announcing her retirement from cinema. She made a forgettable foray into television in 2004, with the short-lived comic series Malini Iyer, an almost tragic parody of Kokila from Meendum Kokila. Though she did make a comeback to cinema with English Vinglish (2012), those who knew Sridevi as the girl from Moondru Mudichu and 16 Vayathinile could see she was a shadow of her former self. Years of cosmetic modification seemed to have taken their toll, and she was quite unable to pull off the facial contortions that had won the silverscreen.
Perhaps the true tragedy of Sridevi is that we never found out what she was capable of as an actress because she became a doll. Her looks overwhelmed her talent, and when the glamour had finally begun to fade, when there was scope for her to do “character roles”, she left the stage for good.
Sridevi – Her magic lives on!