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This is not a love letter, because I have never really been a Sridevi fan. If there was one Bollywood actress from the eighties and nineties who captured my imagination and my heart, it was Madhuri Dixit. But one cannot write about films in India at this particularly moment and ignore Sridevi, whose death in Dubai early last week sparked off a media circus, which was, frankly, quite embarrassing. What should have been a moment of sombre reflection, turned into one of titillating speculation, with rumour flying thick and fast about how she was murdered, how her hedonistic lifestyle — liquor, parties, cocaine — had ended in this tragedy, how the botox had gone to her heart.
The stupidity on display could give a run for its money to the hoary eighties when Sridevi came into her own as an actor and a star. The decade was, arguably, the nadir of mainstream cinema, at least as far as aesthetics was concerned. Those who had tried to hold on to the “art” in cinema had either packed up their bags or surrendered to commercial pressures. Sridevi’s first major Bollywood success was in fact the tacky Himmatwala. But, as I re-watched her films over the past few days, and remembered the rather unconventional life choices she had made through her five-decade-long career in films, it became obvious to me that she would not have given a damn for what you and I thought after her death.
There can hardly be a conversation about Sridevi’s career without referring to 1989, the year in which she delivered two of her biggest hits: Chalbaaz and Chandni. In this deeply sexist film industry, she was a bigger star than her male counterparts in both films, by a simple rule of numbers. She is paired opposite two leading men each: Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna in Chandni, and Sunny Deol and Rajnikanth in Chalbaaz. In fact, in the second film, there is two of her: She plays the role of twin sisters Anju and Manju, separated at infancy, and growing up to be polar opposites. Of course, for audiences then as now, Manju, the beer-guzzling rain-dancing twin, is more magnetic than her straight-jacketed sister, who is an epitome of what chaste heroines were usually imagined as.
Some commentators have argued that Manju’s swagger could easily be imagined as Sridevi’s own demeanour, when she managed to accomplish the unimaginable: Equal billing as the men, and a narrower pay gap. There was a more subtle manner in which she subverted the patriarchy of the industry: By getting more screen time than her male co-actors in both these films. This might hardly seem to be any achievement at all, but in a film industry where male co-actors continue to fight over inch of footage even now (John Abraham-Akshay Kumar; Shah Rukh Khan-Abhishek Bachchan) this was a radical win. The writing was on the wall: The audiences could not get enough of her; the heroes were only incidental.
If her film choices and performances were radical, throwing to the wind all conventional expectations, so was her personal life. Then as now, it provided fodder for worst kind of titillating journalism. By the eighties, film stars had started being less squeamish about how the audiences would perceive their private lives. So unlike, Amitabh Bachchan who threatened to sue anyone who would even refer to his affair with Rekha, Smita Patil-Raj Babbar and Hema Malini-Dharmendra went ahead and got married. Sridevi, too, wedded Mithun Chakraborty for three years from 1983, even while the Disco Dancer was married to Yogita Bali. After that marriage ended, Sridevi got involved with Boney Kapoor, who was also a married man. Of course, epithets of “home-breaker” and “man-eater” were generously attributed to her, but it was like water off a duck’s back. She continued to make good films and scale the heights of success.
While many will talk about her performance in Sadma (1983), Mr India (1989), and also the more recent English Vinglish (2012), for me, her pièce de résistance is Lamhe (1991). In this Yash Chopra classic, Sridevi yet again plays a double role: mother and daughter. While the mother, Pallavi, ignores the amorous advances of Viren (Anil Kapoor), the daughter, Pooja, falls for him. In the early nineties, this was undoubtedly a daring subject, with many of Chopra’s associates asking him to not make the film. At the box off, its tardy performance proved that it was way of its time. But it did win the best picture and best actress Filmfare in 1992. Over time, it has come to be regarded as a classic. It is tempting to imagine that the role of a young girl who can love the man of her dream by overcoming all taboo was close to her heart. But like everything else, it is only speculation. The only thing that one can be absolutely certain about is that Sridevi could not have cared less what we thought about it.