TRIBUTE: Sridevi Iconic actress of Indian cinema | Sunday Observer

TRIBUTE: Sridevi Iconic actress of Indian cinema

My first brush with Indian superstar Sridevi – albeit only through the silver screen – came when I saw the smash hit “Nagina” (1986) at a cinema in Colombo. The house was full and the audience was transfixed as the immortal Lata Mangeshkar song Mein Teri Dushman came on.

Then, Sridevi burst through the screen to the tunes of snake charmer Amrish Puri, imitating a cobra in a trance-like dance that has never been matched since then.

The range of emotions on display was simply remarkable - and all in just eight minutes. Having just viewed it again after more than 30 years on YouTube before writing this article, it is easy to see why millions were mesmerized by the magic of Sridevi. Nagina was the kind of story that was truly in the realm of fiction, but watching Sridevi’s brilliant acting, one could be forgiven for believing that some women can indeed turn into snakes.

Veteran directors themselves were equally astonished by her acting prowess. Renowned director Ram Gopal Varma has written a very emotional tribute titled, “I hate God for killing Sridevi and I hate Sridevi for Dying” in which he describes in detail how powerful her acting was. “She had an invisible wall around her and she does not let anyone cross that. Behind that wall she maintains her dignity and her self-respect and she never lets anyone inside. Also, during the course of working with her and observing her technique of acting I began to understand more and more as a director about the nuances of performances and characterizations because for me she formed the epitome of cinematic acting”.

Inborn talent

Shekhar Kapur, the director of her hit film “Mr. India,” (1987) called Sridevi “the most exciting actress I ever worked with.” “Your energy on camera was scintillating,” Kapur wrote. “There was not a moment on screen that you did not have the audience in your grip. Be it an emotion, a comic moment, a dance.”

When Sridevi performed Hawa Hawai, the signature song of ‘Mr. India,’ Kapur did not even know whether to take close-ups of her face to capture those incredible expressions or long shots to capture her dance moves. If ever there was someone who could ‘speak’ with her eyes as well as her toes, it was Sridevi.

Incidentally, Sridevi was an exceptionally gifted dancer who had attained great proficiency in classical dances like Bharathanatyam. No wonder the camera operators had such a hard time when she began dancing. Another one of her hit dance numbers, Gori tere ang ang mein was in the hit movie Tohfa, where she danced with Jeetendra. But, off-screen, Sridevi was a very composed person. The film critic Rajeev Masand wrote on Twitter that he had “never known anyone who was so painfully shy, so quiet off screen, who just transformed into a force of nature when the cameras came on.”

Sridevi had another inborn talent – comedy. Most of the best comedians in movies are men, but Sridevi broke the mold and cast such stereotype aside. A case in point is her brilliant Charlie Chaplin impersonation also in Mr. India. Kapur wrote: “Comic timing in a blink of an eyelid.

Even As I grieve for Sridevi I couldn’t help admiring her amazing comic timing. Don’t know a single actor in the world that could have pulled this scene off like she did – the Sridevi Charlie Chaplin sequence. She did a perfect replication of Chaplin. I challenge any actress to do that sequence the way Sri did.” Indeed, she could easily fit any role, serious, comedy or anything in between – in the wake of her death, several top journalists have said they got interested in the profession after seeing Sridevi as an investigate journalist in Mr India.

Born as Shree Amma Yanger Ayyappan in Tamil Nadu in 1963, Sridevi was just four when she entered the Tamil film industry. In 1971, seven years before her debut in a lead Bollywood role, she won a Kerala state award for best child artist for her performance in ‘Poompatta’, a Malayalam-language film.

During her relatively short life of 54 years, she appeared in more than 300 Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and Telegu movies, most of which went on to become huge hits. In fact, she did not know a word of Hindi when she first entered Bollywood, but she was a fast learner and within a year or two she managed to do away with the dubbing by a native speaker.

Many Sri Lankan fans remember her role as the onscreen visually impaired daughter of Sivaji Ganeshan and Malini Fonseka in the Indo-Lanka co-production ‘Pilot Premnath’. Although a film starring Sridevi was not shot again afterwards on Sri Lankan soil, she did come to Sri Lanka on several occasions for various film awards ceremonies.

Sridevi was one of the very few women actors in the world who could carry a film on her own without a powerful male lead. Even though Anil Kapoor (her eventual brother-in-law) was the male lead in Mr. India, most critics say the film should have been named Miss India, because Sridevi completely dominated the movie. No other female star could push a superstar like Rajinikanth to second place – her on screen presence and performance were so powerful.

To cite an early example, in 1976, she starred in the Tamil film “Moondru Mudichu” as a widower’s new wife with Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, who was also new to the scene. She was just 13.

In fact, Sridevi was paid Rs.5, 000 for the film while Rajini was paid only Rs.2, 000. Pathinaru Vayadhinile was another hit movie which brought the three young stars together. Her lead debut feature in Hindi, Solva Savan was a remake of her Tamil hit, 16 Vayathinile (At 16), a rare film also starring fellow legends Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth, though it did not fare well at the box office.

Upon hearing of her demise, Rajini, who remained close to Sridevi said: “In front of the camera and behind the camera, there are two Sridevis. Behind the camera she is very unassuming. She will listen to everything. In front of the camera she’s like fire, an electric power would pass. That’s how she would act.”

“Sridevi Kapoor’s astounding talent was not luck. It was well deserved and she worked for it from her childhood. I’ve known her from her teens. She was still a child when she came to work with me and Mr Balachander, my mentor, who sometimes gave me the responsibility of working with her, correcting her acting and shaping even her dance moves,” said Kamal Haasan who has starred in 27 films with Sridevi, including the Hindi movie Sangam.

Among her best-known works were Julie (1975), Johnny (1980), Meendum Kokila (1982), Himmatwala (1983), Sadma, a Hindi remake of the Tamil movie Moondram Pirai (1983), Tohfa (1984), “ChaalBaaz” (1989), “Chandni” (1989) and “Lamhe” (1991).


After marrying the film producer Boney Kapoor in 1996, she retired from acting for 15 years but returned with “English Vinglish” (2012) in which she portrays a housewife struggling to learn English. This movie once again brought to the fore her comedic talents as well as serious acting skills.

Her final film, ‘Mom’ — a thriller in which she played a teacher seeking to avenge the rape of her stepdaughter — was released last year. Reviewing the movie, The Times of India wrote that Sridevi ‘demonstrates why she is the high-priestess’ of Indian cinema. Incidentally, the Pakistani actress Sajal Ali who portrayed the stepdaughter’s role in the movie said, “I lost my mom again” upon hearing Sridevi’s demise, having lost her own mother while filming was going on. (Sridevi will be making one final, brief appearance – as herself – in the forthcoming Hindi film Zero). Her final Tamil film was Puli (2015).

It is interesting to note that she never made it to Hollywood, perhaps on her own volition, after refusing a minor role in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park.

Sridevi was glamorous, but directors did not cast her for the glamour alone. She was beautiful, but that was not the sole reason for casting her. Following in her footsteps, her two daughters Jhanvi and Khushi too are entering the Bollywood movie industry. Her stepson Arjun Kapoor is already a major star in Bollywood.