How Sridevi eclipsed her heroes

August 13, 2020 marks Sridevi's 57th birth anniversary. Here's an exclusive excerpt from Satyarth Nayak’s Sridevi — The Eternal Screen Goddess, that delves into how Sridevi emerged as the ‘hero’ at the box office.

 |  8-minute read |   12-08-2020
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Sridevi - The Eternal Screen Goddess, by author and screenwriter Satyarth Nayak, charts the actress's five-decade-long journey from a child star to India's First Female Superstar.

With exclusive interviews of the biggest actors and directors that Sridevi worked with, both in Bollywood and in the southern film industries, the narrative is filled with anecdotes and inputs from all of them, tracing the legend's evolution from her first film as a child actor in Thunaivan (1969) to her grand finale with Mom (2017).

We present an excerpt from the chapter titled How Sridevi Eclipsed Her Heroes.

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Sridevi - The Eternal Screen Goddess. 296 Pages. Rs 599

Excerpt courtesy: Satyarth Nayak and Penguin Random House India.

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The film that made Sridevi a bonafide star in Tamil cinema was 16 Vayathinile (1977). Debut of visionary film-maker P Bharathiraja, it assembles the triumvirate of Sridevi, Kamal and Rajinikanth. The director gushes: ‘She matches Kamal in every frame. I had told him that if he was not careful, she could outperform him. And she does in many scenes.’ This was validated again in Balachander’s cult classic Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980). A social commentary on youth unemployment, the film casts the actress as stage-actress Devi. Giving her company again is Kamal playing Rangan. Draped in simple cotton saris and a face devoid of make-up, the Sridevi’s depiction of an urban middle-class woman is a lesson in naturalism. That teenage girl, Kamal had mentored five years back on the sets of Moondru Mudichu (1976), had taken such rapid strides by now that film writer Mathimaran exulted in his 2018 interaction with The Hindu: ‘In many films I could see Sridevi outperforming the heroes, including Kamal Haasan… Varumayin Niram Sivappu is the film that offered her maximum space to exhibit her talent.’

It was no different with Thaliava Rajinikanth when they shared screen space again in the classic Johnny (1980). Directed by J. Mahendran, Sridevi essays the role of Archana, a popular singer. Rajini plays a double role, one of whom is the con man Johnny. The romance between Archana and Johnny is painted with the softest brushstrokes. You see it most palpably in the film’s iconic proposal scene. Considered one of the seminal romantic moments of Tamil cinema, it is an awkward setting for both characters. Archana is bashful as she proposes. Johnny is hesitant given his reality. Rajini stuns here, parading a facet not many films tapped, but the scene belongs to Sridevi. The graph of this sequence is a convoluted one and she charts it spectacularly. The initial shyness making way for pain as Johnny rejects the proposal — her face crumbling with ache, her eyes tearing up as anger seeps in. However, Archana does not plead or scream; instead, she thanks Johnny. Her embracing of her fate is truly heartbreaking, and just when resignation starts clouding her, Johnny says yes. Archana’s smile is like a shaft of sunshine peeking through that fog. Conveying both authority and frailty, Sridevi lets us peep into the astounding depths of her art. Mahendran reveals: ‘I remember Rajini calling me that night after we had shot this sequence. He was praising Sridevi again and again and was quite upset that he could not match up to her performance in this scene.’

Storming Bollywood in 1983 with Himmatwala, it was the blockbuster Nagina (1986) that made her the certified numero uno. So massive was the reaction that director Harmesh Malhotra immediately announced a sequel. This was unheard of in those days when even Bachchan’s directors hardly showed such confidence in the hero. The sequel Nigahen (1989) made Sridevi the second Bollywood actress after Fearless Nadia to have her own film franchise. Nagina also established that she needed no male star to send the cash registers ringing, that she had made the ‘heroine’ as supreme as the ‘hero’ who could shoulder a film all by herself and could trounce an Amrish Puri just as easily as Amitabh. Hardly someone who could intellectualize sexism, she had overpowered industry patriarchy on ground zero. Rishi Kapoor agreed, speaking to India Today in 1987 about Nagina: ‘Sridevi carried the film on her back. It was her all the way.’

The jubilee success of Mr. India (1987) further consolidated her conquest of the male bastion that Bollywood was. With Anil Kapoor invisible in half the film and Sridevi devouring him in the remaining half, critics jibed that the film should have been called Miss India! And the November issue of Showtime with the actress on its cover asked, ‘Is Sridevi a Hero?’ Sridevi had now redefined the Hindi film actress, pulled her out from the pits of being a glorified extra and installed her on par with her male counterparts. Anil Kapoor endorses: ‘If Madam had to leave early, her shots would be canned first. Everyone in the crew was in love with her. They’d just complete my shots in a matter of hours and then they’d lovingly work out sequences for Sri. But all that attention lavished on her was well-deserved. She was the complete star.’

Sridevi’s stardom also powered her 1989 blockbuster Chandni. Strolling through the Alps in diaphanous chiffons, her aura makes ‘Mitwa’ one of the finest love ballads from the Yashraj stable. Notice that it is Sridevi who starts the song and Rishi follows suit, the heroine serenading the hero. Interestingly, in the India Today interaction in 1987, Rishi Kapoor had already predicted this: ‘I feel like a homosexual in her arms. It may not be long before she sings songs to me rather than vice versa.’ Emerging again as the ‘hero’ of this classic, she overshadowed both Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna. Chandni not only exalted Sridevi as the goddess of Bollywood but forever enshrined her as the greatest Yash Chopra heroine.

Like Chandni, Chaalbaaz is a full Sridevi package with two top heroes again playing subservient to her. Parashar reveals that it was Sridevi who had suggested Sunny Deol’s name: ‘She was the only actress of her time who could dictate who her hero would be. Sunny would joke on the sets that his role seemed like a mere guest appearance. If I ever shot his close-ups, he would quip, “Aaj Mai nahin aai hai kya?” That she had reduced Sunny Deol and Rajinikanth, a top north Indian hero and a top south Indian hero, to mere props in the film, perfectly symbolized Sridevi’s dominance over the entire nation. She had become the Mai of Bollywood. Parashar shares: ‘Everyone had started addressing her as Mai. That was the kind of power she was wielding now in the industry. I was once having lunch with Vinod Khanna, Amrish Puri and Shatrughan Sinha on a film set, when all three suddenly stood up with respect. I heard voices saying, “Mai aa gayi”, and saw Sri entering the room. That was the level of her stardom.’

For Telugu audiences, Sridevi become ‘Athiloka Sundari’ with the 1990 mega-hit Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari where she’s paired opposite Chiranjeevi. The film’s producer Ashwini Dutt shares a glimpse of her superstardom: ‘We would take more care of Sridevi than the hero. For us, Chiranjeevi was a regular Telugu hero but Sridevi was this mega Bollywood star, who had come all the way from Bombay to do this film with us. She was bigger than any hero.’

The media now anointed her as Female Bachchan. The label acquired a whole new meaning when Sridevi decided to stop working with Amitabh.  In a phase where every heroine was salivating to be Bachchan’s leading lady, Sridevi’s decision was open mutiny. Movie instantly featured Amitabh and Sridevi on its July cover with the intriguing question — ‘Whose Industry Is It Anyway?’ Filmfare showcased the actress on its November cover with the tag line—‘Out of Reach?’ In the same interview, Sridevi gave her reason why: ‘I never said I won’t work with Amit-ji. But then what’s there for any artiste to do in a film starring him? He does everything himself.’   

However, when director Mukul Anand conceived a magnum opus with Amitabh set it Afghanistan, it begged the magnificence of Sridevi. Bachchan himself was in a fix on how to get the actress onboard, when an opportunity presented itself. Those days it was customary for film-makers to invite the industry and media and share rushes of their upcoming ventures. Boney Kapoor and Satish Kaushik held such an event this year where they screened Sridevi’s outstanding performance in the number ‘Dushman Dil Ka’ from Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja. Amitabh, present at this preview, was mesmerised. The next day, Bachchan sent a truckload of roses for Sridevi. Headlines exploded about how the biggest actor had paid tribute to the biggest actress. Filmfare brought out a cover story with the tagline—‘How Amitabh Wooed Sridevi’. But the battle had only been half won. While Sridevi agreed in principle to star in the film, she laid down the condition that she would play both the roles of Amitabh’s wife and daughter. This was unprecedented! Never had any heroine dared to demand a double role in a Bachchan film. The industry waited with bated breath; some even sniggered that Sridevi was reaching for the stars. But the actress knew her worth. The deal was struck. The makers sighed with relief and Khuda Gawah went on the floors. Bollywood gaped in disbelief. Sridevi had again achieved the impossible. She had become the only leading lady to play a double role in a Big B film. Twenty years later in English Vinglish (2012), Amitabh would play a cameo. And Sridevi would script a glorious comeback without the crutch of a big hero.

Also read: How Sridevi gave Yash Chopra's career a fresh lease of life with Chandni

Writer

Satyarth Nayak Satyarth Nayak @satyarthnayak

A writer, journalist and film buff, Nayak is the author of The Emperor's Riddles.

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