How Sridevi became the reigning queen of Bollywood

Bollywood, like filmdom elsewhere, has largely been a male-dominated industry: very few female actors have held their own against their male counterparts to attain dizzying heights of stardom, normally the exclusive preserve of men.

The versatile and hugely talented Sridevi, who passed away at just 54 following a cardiac arrest while attending a wedding in Dubai on February 24, was arguably the first female superstar of Bollywood.

There have been many exceptional female actors – Waheeda Rehman, Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan — to name just a few, who were stars in their own right, but none of them eclipsed the dazzle and the clout of the leading men of their time.

But it was Sridevi who first broke the proverbial glass ceiling in the mid-1980s and was the highest paid actor — male or female — of the time, along with the incomparable Amitabh Bachchan.

She started her career with a Tamil movie ‘Thunaivan’ at the age of four. Thereafter, she acted in a string of Tamil movies as a child artiste, before turning into a lead actress with ‘Moondru Mudichu’ in 1976.

Her Bollywood debut came in 1978 movie ‘Solva Saal’, but it was ‘Himmatwala’ that made her a star. The movie was a massive commercial success and she formed a formidable pair with the evergreen Jeetendra. The duo later lit up the silver screen with several big hits such as ‘Justice Chaudhary’, ‘Tohfa’, ‘Maqsad’, and ‘Mawali’.

Despite the fabulous success of these movies, the ceiling was yet to be broken. A section of the media bellyached over the fact that all her Bollywood hits had been remakes of South Indian movies and she was only dishing out successful films with Jeetendra. The genre of all these movies was also the same.

Doubts were cast over her acting chops and longevity.

Then came Harmesh Malhotra’s ‘Nagina’ in 1986, and this was like a rite of passage for her. The resounding success of the movie — it was the second highest grosser of the year — was attributed to her as it was a female-centric movie and she enacted the author-backed role with refreshing abandon. Her male lead, Rishi Kapoor, was relegated to the background.

‘Aakhree Raasta’, with Amitabh Bachchan, and ‘Jaanbaaz’ with Firoz Khan-Anil Kapoor, also set the cash registers ringing, effectively ending the illusion that Sridevi could deliver big hits only with Jeetendra.

By the end of 1986, she was being unanimously hailed as the No.1 female star in the country. Reportedly, her fee for a movie was equal to what reigning superstar Amitabh Bachchan charged.

She cemented her position even further with ‘Mr India’ (1987), ‘Chandni’ and ‘Chaalbaaz’ (1989) — all of which were super-hits — and continued to rule the roost.

Roles were being written keeping her in mind; she was the centrifugal force of her movies and brought huge crowds to the cinema halls entirely on her own steam.

Even big male stars such as Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and Sunny Deol had to play second fiddle to her. The dark clouds of doubts about her acting ability evaporated in the bright light of her dazzling performances.

Although Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi reeled off an array of acclaimed movies in the same decade and won accolades from critics, neither of them possessed the Box Office clout and fawning fan-following among the masses that Sridevi enjoyed.

She also proved her unmistakable versatility by starring in movies of different genres and pulling off diverse roles with consummate ease. From a mousy mentally-challenged girl in ‘Sadma’ to fire-breathing female-snake in ‘Nagina’, she traversed the entire spectrum with admirable finesse.

Her comic timing in ‘Chaalbaaz’, romantic resonance in ‘Chandni’ and spectacular dance sequences in ‘Mr India’ and ‘Himmatwala’ also won her many a laurel.

Here was an actress who was as much at ease with intense roles in avant-garde cinema as with the ones in mainstream potboilers; someone who could marry elegance with chutzpah. Her screen presence was delightfully earnest and invariably in sync with the characters she portrayed. She looked naturally sprightly in ‘Chaalbaaz’ while heartrendingly vulnerable in ‘Gumraah’.

Between 1985 and 1990, Sridevi was the undisputed queen of Bollywood. However, by the late 1980s, another young actress had started gaining ground: Madhuri Dixit was the new kid on the block and had started to reel off blockbusters such as ‘Tezaab’, ‘Ram Lakhan’ and ‘Dil’, and eventually upstaged Sridevi with ‘Saajan’.

Madhuri’s breathtaking dancing skills and screen presence cast a spell over the viewers.

Meanwhile, the commercial failure of ‘Lamhe’ — which was critically acclaimed — came as a huge jolt to Sridevi although she won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for it. Opulent costume drama ‘Khuda Gawah’ with Amitabh Bachchan and ‘Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja’ with Anil Kapoor also sank without a trace.

Rejecting Inder Kumar’s blockbuster ‘Beta’ (1992) was the last straw. Madhuri was signed on the dotted lines and aced the role. ‘Dhak Dhak’ became a national anthem and rocked the charts for months.

Sridevi did bounce back, whipping out a powerful performance in 1994 hit ‘Laadla’ but by then Madhuri had raced way ahead with ‘Khalnayak’ (1993) and record-breaking ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ (1994). Media had a field day pitching them against each other and comparing their accomplishments and acting capabilities.

Sridevi married producer Boney Kapoor in 1996 and after a successful ‘Judaai’ (1997), took a sabbatical from movies.

She once again wowed the audience with her comeback vehicle ‘English Vinglish’ (2012) by pitching in a wonderfully nuanced performance as a demure housewife. Her last movie was a revenge-drama ‘Mom’ which hit the theatres in 2017 and was well received by critics and the masses alike.

She inspired an entire generation of young female actresses — Juhi Chawla to Manisha Koirala are just two of the many stars who have publicly proclaimed Sridevi as their favourite female actor.

The overwhelming outpouring of tributes from the current crop of female actresses also bears testimony to this. Celebrated filmmaker Karan Johar, along with superstars Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, rates her as the best female actor ever.

With her untimely demise, Bollywood has lost an iconic trailblazer who paved the way for the next generation of female actors to stand their ground and aspire for equal, or even higher, billing as their male counterparts in the industry.

The aura and depth of Sridevi’s illustrious legacy will forever remain undiminished.