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I remember Sridevi only for a few signature moments. Her swirl in a shower of flower petals in Chandni. Her single-minded adoration for an older man in Lamhe. That face that could mirror any emotion, any thought in a trice. Those limbs that made music whenever they moved to music. There is an ironical moment in English Vinglish where everyone is dancing and she plays coy and you remember that Delhi winter night that she sets on fire in Chandni as she dances to Mere Haathon Mein.
But when in the climax of English Vinglish, she dances not like a girl she once was but like a woman, in the snow with her screen child, it is clear suddenly that real dancers dance from inside out, no disrespect meant to the current crop of female actors. Even in Mr India, when she gyrated in that wet blue saree, it was her face that you remembered. When she guzzled a few beers and danced in the rain in Chaalbaaz, you remembered a pair of rolling eyes, her ‘swing your legs the wrong way,’ move, her comic timing, the child like innocence in a woman’s body. It was never about her physicality though they did call her ‘thunder thighs’ in the beginning.
I was never a Sridevi fan however. She was too shrill. Too fidgety and yet when I saw her in English Vinglish almost a week after its release surrounded by grandmothers in swishing silks, families, young girls and their mothers, I felt what can only be described as a feeling of coming home inhabited by a real story embodied by a real actor. The promos of the film had reminded me of Revathi’s Mitr My Friend where an Indian housewife abroad finds a hobby and herself . And yes, the wedding and the final hurrah channelled Bend It Like Beckham but soaking in the response around me (at one point, a lady sitting next to me sobbed in her kerchief) reminded me that I was not just watching Sridevi but a timeless note that can replay, reinvent itself anytime.
Hindi cinema’s first memory of Sridevi is as actor Lakshmi’s younger sister in Julie (1975) where even as part of the backdrop most of the time, you noticed in her a restless wiggle to outperform her tiny role. Acting for her is now an instinctive, internal thing, not flashy or overt as it sometimes was earlier. Something affirmed by her latest co-star in English Vinglish and also French superstar, Mehdi Nebbou in an interview, Even though she was born a Tamilian, was a star at the age of six, a leading South-Indian superstar in her teens who then went on to conquer the Hindi film industry and ruled it for more than a decade, you do not see in her today traces of a jaded actor who has seen it all and done it all.
In English Vinglish, she plays a submissive housewife without a sense of self and right from the first moment when she wakes up to face a new day, you forget the star who once was as much of a box-office draw as the top heroes. You forget because Sridevi blurs into Shashi and her awkward silences, her fumbling attempts to speak her mind and to find her voice after years of self-denial. You don’t even see the process of the actor as she interprets a character she has never played. You see no seams, no edges, no false notes. Just a performer who knows her craft inside out and can play anyone, right from an irresistible baby Muruga in Kandan Karunai (her first film) the child woman of Moondram Pirai (or Sadma in Hindi), the snake woman of Nagina, the ingenue of Lamhe, the dream girl of Chandni. In English Vinglish, even without raising her voice, or turning on the glamour faucet even once that we know she can in a blink, she vanishes in the narrative and into the lives of millions of Indian women who are mothers and wives and have forgotten to be individuals.
Hers has been a long journey. She got her first breakthrough role in K. Balachander‘s film Moondru Mudichu in 1976 and by the early 80s, she had starred in a slew of super hit films as she held her own against superstars like Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth. She is also perhaps the only female actor who became a leading light in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and also the Hindi film industry. Her debut in Hindi films, Solva Sawan (1976) flopped however and it was only with the 1983 blockbuster Himmatwala that she arrived never to leave. Even before the film released, the buzz about her was electric. Stills from the shoot of Himmatwala warned the trade watchers of a storm that was headed from the South to Mumbai. The welcome was rapturous because she was a box office dream. She could dance, emote, look glamorous. Her voice and diction were an issue and Rekha dubbed for her in a film or two but then Sridevi unapologetically embraced her one flaw and so did we and put up with her even when he childishly warbled the title song of Chandni.
The one thing that marked her career was her ability to redefine herself. From playing one dimensional roles in masala pot-boilers like Mawaali, Tohfa and Justice Chowdhri , all inspired by her regional successes, she morphed into a leading lady with pan-Indian appeal who lent her sparkling, Chaplinesque comic talent to Shekhar Kapoor’s cult hit Mr India, who could be meek or mercurial, a victim or a bully in the hugely entertaining Chaalbaaz and then embody ethereal romance in Yash Chopra’s cinema. She erased regional divides and became one of Indian cinema’s iconic faces.
In English Vinglish, you cannot miss the enormity of her achievement as a woman whose mother tongue is Tamil but who still plays a Maharashtrian housewife in a Hindi film without a trace of discomfort. And when she bursts unwillingly into a dance, you smile and understand just what real actors are made of. Believability. And a touch of inexplicable magic. I am not fan still. But I kind of forget that when Sridevi faces the camera and smiles.
A shorter version of this story earlier appeared in the student edition of The New Indian Express.
Reema Moudgil has been writing for magazines and newspapers on art, cinema, issues, architecture and more since 1994, is an RJ, hosts a daily Ghazal show, runs unboxed writers, is the editor of Chicken Soup for The Indian Woman’s soul, the author of Perfect Eight (http://www.flipkart.com/perfect-eight-9380032870/p/itmdf87fpkhszfkb?pid=9789380032870&_l=A0vO9n9FWsBsMJKAKw47rw–&_r=dyRavyz2qKxOF7Yuc ) and an artist.