I want to cry at Shekhar Kapur’s appalling decision to render the background dancers in Hawa Hawaii in black face, effectively ruining what should have been Sridevi’s triumphal moment in Hindi cinema. If you have seen Mr India, you will remember that the song occurs at a moment when Sridevi, in aid of the do-gooding superhero Mr India, has stormed the lair of the enemy, but has to go undercover as a foreign dancer to avoid being discovered.
As the song begins, she improvises wildly to keep up the appearance to which a person called “Hawa Hawaii” is presumably accustomed. She starts to sing in a foreign language, made up of the names of exotic world cities (beginning, naturally, with Honolulu). She does a small trick-stumble—a staple of Sridevi choreography—rolls her eyes, knocks about into her all-male chorus line, seemingly off-rhythm.
Her stream of nonsense words becomes the turbulence out of which she lifts herself, like an aircraft with continent-spanning wings, into song. In under 2 minutes, the spotlight snaps off; the whole room is drenched in light; her audience erupts in applause as she begins to sing in Hindi. She is, in all respects, the woman destined to strike lightning into your heart. When she sings “Bijli giraane main hoon aayee”, you want to burst into applause too.
When the trailer of this week’s big release English Vinglish first came out, I rewound and watched it over and over again, and have continued to do so in the weeks since. It surprised me with a recollection which I appear to have repressed. I had forgotten that Sridevi was the star of the first three films I ever saw in my life: Nagina, Chaalbaaz, and in between the two, Mr India.
We think movie stars become great because they linger in our memories, but making icons involves a great deal of forgetting. Sridevi made 264 films over 45 years (that we know of), and we will never watch anything approaching the majority of them again. But charisma is a resilient thing, and hers always had powerful transitive properties. She starred in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films, and at the height of her superstardom in the Madras industry, came to Bombay and became a superstar again.
In the last half-century she has probably made more bad films than good ones. But we watch more bad films than good ones too. We hope not only that they will make us forget the real world, but actively collude in their attempt to paper over their own weaknesses by bringing us a few sparkling things: some beautiful music, a handful of great dialogues, and a star about whom only the good things will come to matter.
I forgot Sridevi very soon after my first serious episode of admiration. By the time she was making her most popular Hindi movies, I had already switched sides. In 1992, the eight-year-old student population at my girls’ primary school divided itself into two competing sides: the Madhuri camp and the Sridevi camp. Team Madhuri, of whom I was and remain a member, comprised those caught in the throes of new-girl worship. Of her—our—Other, Sridevi, I would then, and over the next 20 years, retain only a few surface memories.
In my school we grew up with a profusion of female role models; the teachers, the nuns, the saints to whom we prayed, and mothers everywhere, including our own. There was also a subterranean strain of hero worship, not permitted in assembly, not expressed in the modesty of our manners and the earnest ambition of our report cards. We loved the women we saw in Hindi movies. In later years, the burden of our desire would come to fall on their male co-stars, but our inner lives before middle school were dominated by girls and women.
The Madhuri fans were outflanked, in my eighth year, almost two-to-one by Team Sridevi. On one side were arrayed a group of girls who reacted with spontaneous love to Sri the comedian, who could practically act her lipstick off her face; on the other was a small number of sophisticated early adopters, who circumvented pre-tween shame culture by falling for the chiffon dreams of Chandni and Lamhe, populated by Sridevi characters who, while neither angry nor funny, were categorically not vulgar.
Our memories were so new, we did not then know that Sridevi had already been making films for over twice the length of our lives, and the gauzy, demure girl pining after the older Anil Kapoor in Lamhe was just one of the many needs of the cultural hour that Sridevi had embodied since her first role, aged 4, as the infant Lord Murugan in Kandan Karunai (1967). She did not salvage everything in which she appeared. It is easy to be kind to the gauche young person who participated in those overripe southern crossover ventures with names like Himmat Aur Mehanat and Watan Ke Rakhwale. In truth, even at her zenith she was making movies like Mr Bechara and Chaand Kaa Tukdaa, films no casual viewer will revisit with pleasure.
Child star, teen sweet pea, dance queen, thunder thighs. Having entered the race early, she had never stopped running. In between dozens of films that amounted to little more than transactions, she appeared in the troubling, complex works which helped establish the legends of both Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. Both starred with her in Moondru Mudichu, one of her early hits as an adult. She was an actor in Tamil; in Telugu, she was, as it is politely said, glamorous. The early successes in her Mumbai ledger were invocations of those money-spinners—bosom-heaving K. Raghavendra Rao melodramas like Tohfa, Himmatwala and Suhaagan, now the stuff of juicy afternoon cable viewing.
Sridevi worked in times when it was common for actors to work three shifts a day: the more famous the star, the more sets she was on, playing two or three different characters in five or six different sets of costumes. She worked so much that she often played more than one character on the same set. Which Hindi movie star has essayed more double roles? She did Gurudev, Banjaran, Khuda Gawah, Lamhe, Chaalbaaz and Guru, the last two in the same year. She played her own daughter in the hallucinogenic Nigahen, a sequel to Nagina. She personified the divided self: both queen and chattel, terrorized and terrorizing, mute and hyper-loquacious.
In all eras and all languages, her icon had some things in common. Foremost among them is her polarizing vulnerability, incarnated in that fluting, uncertain voice and eyes perpetually ready to spill tears. Give or take the angularity of her chin, her lip wobbled in Majaal much as it did in Lamhe, much as it did in Judaai. Even in her daredevil movies there was always a second Sridevi crying for help, praying that men would rescue or improve her.
Many years after its publication, I came across an undiscarded 1987 issue of Stardust. One of its stories was a narrative that was a monthly staple at the height of Sridevi’s powers: the story about her unhappy life off screen. Dashed off with the level stare and matter-of-fact relish of the professional voyeur, it speculated about Sridevi’s private life in what you sensed was oft-repeated detail. The affairs with married co-stars were inevitably unhappy. Parental control of her life was harsh and exhaustive. The interests of a woman who had never had a formal education, never made a decision for herself, never done anything but act in the movies, were precisely nothing. When she wasn’t working, Stardust said, she wandered aimlessly through her house clutching a large stuffed doll, in effect an effigy of herself.
What the gossip did not say was how, or if, her life mirrored the Sridevi who existed simultaneously in those movies; the buffoon, the warrior, the goddess. Her comic persona is still astonishing for its sheer fluidity. An upturned eyebrow, a curl of the lip, and her perfect doll-face, with its wobbling underlip and unshed tears, would transform itself into a clown mask. Her physical comedy is an early and superior iteration of the “clumsy girl” stereotype that so many beautiful female actors and characters are endowed with today, where the klutziness is an apology for the beauty. Sridevi’s is a knowing clumsiness, a trick up the sleeve of a woman whose eyes have always recalled Homeric similes. That very breathy little-girl voice would get on your last nerve—but once she was through with hoodwinking her phalanx of creditors in Chaalbaaz, she would use it to tell them, “Ok! Tata! Bye bye, chee you, sayonara!
To pull up the Hawa Hawaii video on YouTube today is to shake off the laboured illusions of current escapism, which, whatever its pleasures, has no place for a woman who casts such a long shadow. In this, and so many other moments, she looms over the screen (quite literally, in Janbaaz, where her cameo as a singing star is full of composite images of her belting out the song “Har kisi ko nahi milta yahan pyar zindagi mein [Few people find love in their lifetimes]” against an abstract background of blue sky and boundless ocean). To watch her is to be spellbound by the largeness of her. It is also to fall, just as easily, into the trap of the emptying gaze about which Marilyn Monroe once said: “Men don’t see me. They just lay their eyes on me.”
The more I watch Hawa Hawaii, the more I want to re-watch it. But it’s hard for me to do so now without feeling despair at the sight of her, so singular and gleaming, the product of an industry which exploited its women with utter rapacity, and then, by putting them on screen to make them unforgettable, contrived a gigantic act of forgetting.
By the time we caught up with Sridevi as children, she had more backstory than we could absorb. Tabula rasa, she was a deity. Her nose had already been sawed into shape—all right, allegedly—and her face carefully controlled its natural roundness. She glowed: The teardrop-lashes in those hundreds of photos plastered on Rishi Kapoor’s walls in Chandni held her Category 5 hurricane in check. Is there a more emphatic confirmation of the habit of laying eyes on a woman without seeing than a blockbuster romance in which a stalker’s creepy rituals are presented as evidence of true love?
The Madhuri and Sridevi camps of my third year did not last long. The introduction of new vocabularies of femininity created a cacophony in our worlds, in which it was difficult to hold on to the language we had grown up with. As we retreated into the private world of adolescence, our early favourites rose, like the levitating aunts of Latin American novels, into an unheralded, unimaginable category of womanhood. The distant light of their meteors would thereafter light our waking minds only occasionally, and unlike Rani Mukerji and Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, we would not be found waiting under the night sky to make a wish.
Sridevi did not make a movie after 1997’s Judaai, one of the four or five worst films ever made in Bollywood. Afterwards, she blipped on our radars now and again. A film she had shot in the mid-1990s with Akshay Kumar released theatrically a decade later; she had a brief run on television as the star of a clash-of-civilizations sitcom, Malini Iyer; she endorsed Vanish detergent on TV, where her feathery proportions effectively bespoke their own kind of vanishment. In the broad daylight of adulthood the dandelion-down Sri of English Vinglish is a woman of altered proportions: human, like the rest of us, not expected to enchant us back into childhood.
I, too, have laid eyes on her without really seeing. Only recently have the endless reruns of Chaalbaaz and Mr India on TV begun to remind me of the quality of the darkness in which they first appeared; of the heat-less, scratchy lantern-glow of the screen in Galaxy cinema, and the smell of a bottle of Gold Spot opened under the sweating light bulbs of the cafeteria in the interval. As I replay the English Vinglish trailer, which made my nose leak and my eyes burn the first time I saw it, I am watching, in my mind, our earliest encounters.
It is 1986 and Sridevi has made Nagina, the year’s blockbuster hit, in which she plays Rajni, an angry snake who transforms herself into a beautiful woman to trap a rich young man from a family with whom she has an old vendetta. Her contact lenses glow the colour of opals; no lehenga has flashed as melodramatically white as hers. Never has female hatred for male oppression been more literal than this snake whirling around a snake charmer, singing “Main teri dushman, dushman tu mera (I am your enemy and you mine)”.
It is 1987 and she is in Mr India, playing a journalist in the great comics tradition of the time, a grown-up, tooth-and-claw Lois Lane to the preternatural innocent that is Anil Kapoor’s Superman, where she plays, not a mother to the film’s charming orphans, but a provider. She storms into their lives like a mistral and yanks their scruffy young caretaker around. He has a secret watch which turns him invisible; she has an overdeveloped sense of justice. She continues to board in the children’s large, unswept house so that her rent money will pay for their upkeep; she tries to put on a brave face when she buys them food, but when the tears come she forces herself to finish her speech before their starved, accusing faces, before sweeping away to cry alone.
It is 1989, and before she boards the chariot of the Yash Chopra rapture, Sridevi makes Chaalbaaz, the first film my parents have been able to watch in a theatre without having to carry me out. I hide my face in my father’s sleeve as Anupam Kher horse-whips—horse-whips!—the fragile, other-worldly Anju into complying with his standards for good behaviour. I have to be hushed when the lost twin, the hustler Manju, is outwitting their tormentors, because she makes me laugh so hard.
• • • • •
Five unforgettable double roles.
• Chaalbaaz (1989): An update of the Hema Malini classic ‘Seeta Aur Geeta’, ‘Chaalbaaz’ contains two iconic Sridevi performances. By a trick of fate, Manju, a wise-cracking, hard-drinking dancer, exchanges places with Anju, a nervous wreck of an heiress who is practically enslaved by her greedy uncle. Caught in each other’s worlds, they find love, dish out righteous justice, and come into their shared inheritance.
• Banjaran (1991): This entertaining cheese-fest with Rishi Kapoor featured Sridevi as Reshma, the daughter of a travelling band of ‘banjaras’—Bollywood version—who falls in love with a rich man with whom she seems to have an occult-level connection. Surprise! They were lovers, cruelly separated in a past life. The Rishi character’s portrait of her, made before they ever met, is actually a painting of the long-dead Devi.
• Lamhe (1991): Portraits again! When the young Pooja finds a pencil sketch of herself in the bedroom of her fabulously wealthy but emotionally distant guardian (played by an aged-up Anil Kapoor), she assumes her love is returned. But Anil’s Kunwar Virendra Pratap Singh is actually in love with Pallavi, Pooja’s mother who died giving birth to her.
• Khuda Gawah (1992): Sridevi plays a mother-daughter duo again in Mukul Anand’s sanguinary epic. The daredevil Benazir won the heart of Amitabh Bachchan’s Afghan warlord, but after he disappears in India, decades pass before the daughter he’s never seen, the neo-daredevil Mehndi, can bring her parents together again.
• Gurudev (1993): ‘Gurudev’ was left unfinished in 1990 when actor-director Vinod Mehra died, but when the completed film released in 1993, audiences were treated to a medley of Sridevi’s greatest hits—comic scenes, over-the-top dance numbers, and her glam versus street avatars as Priya, a dancing star, and the rapscallion Rosie (Rishi Kapoor and Anil Kapoor also starred.)