Fifty years ago, in a studio in Chennai (then Madras), a four-year-old girl faced the cameras for a mythological film titled Thunaivan, produced by Sandow MMA Chinnappa Devar.
Not many in the audience that watched this wisp of a girl play ‘Lord Muruga’ would have wagered that this lass with luminous, bright eyes and a prominent nose would one day become the toast of not just South Indian cinema, but Bollywood as well.
Sridevi performed as a child artist in a number of films, but landed her first significant role in a Hindi remake of the Malayalam hit Chattakari. Titled Julie and directed by veteran director KS Sethumadhavan, the film saw Sridevi cast as the heroine Lakshmi’s nubile younger sister.
But the biggest challenge of her fledgling career came to her in the Tamil film Moondru Mudichu, directed by star maker and the man with the Midas touch – K Balachander. As a thirteen-year-old, she was saddled with the role of the wife of an aging widower (played by Calcutta Viswanathan) and the stepmother of Rajinikanth.
Kamal Haasan had a guest role in the film and the highlight of the film was the sequence of scenes between Sridevi and Rajinikanth. Balachander was later to cast her in another successful film Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, which had Kamal in the lead, and Sridevi in the role of a young girl with a wayward father who falls for Kamal.
Another director who played a stellar role in turning Sridevi into a household name was Bharathiraaja. His debut film Pathinaru Vayadhinile, a pastoral drama, had Sridevi playing the central role of the village beauty, Mayil, with Kamal Haasan as a physically challenged Chappani and Rajinikant as the scheming villain Parattai.
The film turned out to be a blockbuster hit. Sridevi, who had not yet established herself in the industry, threw caution to the winds, exhibiting the voluptuousness of her lithe frame, sending the front benchers into raptures of delight.
Bharathiraaja again cast her opposite Kamal in the suspense thriller Sigappu Rojakkal, where Kamal played a homicidal maniac hunting down the heroine only to perish in the climax. The Sridevi-Kamal Haasan pair was a rage in Kollywood for several years, and the duo worked together in over forty films, including comedies like Meendum Kokila and intense dramas like Moondram Pirai.
Moondram Pirai, helmed by cinematographer-turned-director Balu Mahendra, was a milestone in Sridevi’s film career. It tells the story of a professor (Kamal) who picks up an amnesia-struck waif, rendered senseless after a near fatal accident. He takes her home and shelters her in the cocoon of his heart, but eventually loses her in a dramatic denouement when, after recovering her mental faculties, she is unable to recognize him as her saviour.
But for the climax, where Kamal goes overboard with his emotions, the entire film belonged to Sridevi. Glamour took a back seat in the film as the actor essayed her role with aplomb, touching a new height in her career, dwarfing even a seasoned performer like Kamal. Ironically, it was Kamal who won the National Award for his performance while Sridevi was overlooked in the Best Actress category.
Sridevi also worked with other Tamil heroes like Sivakumar in Kavi Kuyil and turned in a memorable performance in the Mahendran-directed Johnny opposite Rajinikanth, with whom she had also acted in the SP Muthuraman directed Priya.
Sridevi forayed into the Malayalam and Telugu industries too, and while Mollywood only cast her in lacklustre roles, well fleshed-out roles came to her in Telugu opposite veterans like Nageswara Rao (Premabishekam, a smash hit), NTR, Krishna, Shobhan Babu and so on. Sridevi was the heroines in such Telugu hits as Konda Veeti Singham, Kshana Kshanam, Veeragadu, Sardar Pasparayudu and Bobbili Puli.
Sridevi’s first foray into Bollywood as a heroine was with Bharathiraaja’s 1978 remake of Pathinaru Vayadhinile titled Solva Salwan, which however turned out to be a damp squib. It was in Himmatwala released in 1983, where she was paired with Jeetendra, a favourite of producers down South, that she created a significant impact. Suddenly, Sridevi and her ‘thunder thighs’ came into sharp focus across the nation.
The Sridevi-Jeetendra pair was much like the Sridevi-Kamal combination down south, and films like Mawali and Tohfa clicked in a big way, while almost all their other films too did brisk business. Jeetendra, dubbed ‘Jumping Jack’ for his dancing prowess, was in awe of Sridevi. In a recent interview, he commented that he found it tough to match steps with her in the dance sequences as she was such a brilliant dancer.
Not all her Hindi films did justice to her talent or versatility as they were mere potboilers focusing on entertainment. But there were notable exceptions like Sadma (the remake of Moondram Pirai), Mr India, Chandni, Chaalbaaz (in a dual role with Sunny Deol and Rajinikanth), Khuda Gawah (again, playing dual roles of an Afghani mother and daughter, opposite Amitabh Bachchan), Lamhe, and Gumrah.
Shekar Kapur’s Mr India (which critics felt should have been titled Miss India as Sridevi hogged the limelight) was a delightful comedy caper, where she acted opposite Anil Kapoor. The “Hawa Hawaii” song, where she danced with gay abandon, became a craze, as did her Chaplinesque act that brought the roof down.
Ace director Yash Chopra was so fascinated with her talent that he cast her in the dual role of a mother and daughter in his film Lamhe. Already, she had won hearts in his earlier film, Chandni, in a role tailor-made for her. Commercial hits like Nagina, Karma, and Janbaaz kept coming, right down to her last project before bidding au revoir to the industry, Judaai.
Marriage to Boney Kapoor, Anil Kapoo’s elder brother and a producer in his own right, turned the queen of the box office into a demure housewife. But when even her most die-hard fans thought she had hung up her boots for good, Sridevi sprang a surprise by returning to the silver screen after a fifteen-year hiatus.
In 2012, Sridevi made a powerful comeback with the English Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde. The film’s theme centred on Sridevi as a housewife, who after being taunted by her husband and daughters on her lack of proficiency in English, strives to match their expectations by opting for a crash course in the language.
The film was a runaway hit and the actor proved that she could still carry a film on her shoulders. Sridevi’s forthcoming film Mom, produced by husband Boney Kapoor and directed by newcomer Ravi Udyavar will feature her in the lead as the mother of two children played by Pakistani actors Sajid Ali and Adnan SIiddique. The film, set for a July release, also sees Nawazuddin Siddique and Akshay Khanna sharing frames with her.
There’s no dearth of admirers even within the industry for the woman recently chosen as India’s greatest actress in the last hundred years by a popular news channel. Salman Khan, for instance, recently said that Sridevi is greater than all the Khans in the industry, while veteran actor Anupam Kher dubbed her the Queen of Hindi cinema.
What is remarkable about her rise to this throne is that she never had any godfathers in any of the industries she worked in. Instead, she made her rise to the top thanks to her versatility, her commitment to cinema and the hard work she put in over several decades.
Bollywood has always been a haven for actresses from the South, with the likes of Vyjayantimala, Waheeda Rahman, Padmini, Hema Malini and Rekha all carving niches for themselves. But Sridevi has always been in a different league altogether, which is saying a lot considering that these other stars had massive followings in their heydays.