Sridevi debuted as a four-year-old in a Tamil film called Thunaivan. Seeing her cherubic face, it was hard to fathom how one day, she would overshadow the male actors. Often referred to as ‘Lady Bachchan’ in the 80s, she was definitely bigger than the men she starred with. Her work showcased not only her inimitable talent, but also her single-handed box-office pull. What would be a Tohfa, or a Himmatwala, without Sri?
India’s first female superstar (though many will dispute and say the title belonged to Hema Malini) will be remembered for many iconic as well as some forgettable films out of the 300 she has done in the Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam film industries.
At just thirteen, she took on fully fledged roles of complex women – including one in which she played first a lover, and then stepmother to Rajnikanth! Sridevi commanded a presence like no other heroine of her times could. She pushed for screen time on par with her male co-leads, as well as equal pay – long before these were widely discussed topics. She was one of the only women in Bollywood who could lead a film without a male co-star – something incredibly rare in Indian cinema.
In a career spanning fifty years, Sridevi was never once put into any mould – she was that malleable. Movies and characters were written around her and she brought to the silver screen much more than entertainment. This was an achievement not many female actors have been able to accomplish. Creating a formidable space for herself – and becoming irreplaceable – in a male-dominated industry, Sridevi rarely played second fiddle in any of her movies – even to the bigger names. She matched up to (and even trumped) Kamal Hassan in Sadma, refused Ajooba opposite Amitabh Bachchan and dared to ask Yash Chopra to make her the love-struck stalker when he asked her to play Kiran in Darr. In a galaxy of stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikant, Sunny Deol, Rishi Kapoor and Anil Kapoor, she single-handedly stole their thunder.
It is true some films may evoke images of Bollywood clichés and dancing around trees, but look closely and she was so much more than that for the women (and men) in her audience: a tough, independent woman; a feminist inspiration; a true trailblazer who fought to change perceptions of women in cinema, sometimes in a sugar-coated pill (maybe a Lamhe) or sometimes by wielding a whip (in Chaalbaaz). Sridevi worked with strong female roles that showcased her as an actress, but also as a role model to women who were seeking a progressive life.
Awarded the Padma Shri in 2013, Sridevi rebelled, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, and swam against the tide when movies were mostly about machismo, blown-up male protagonists, and mostly ignored or stereotypical female movie characters. She delivered the early blows to Bollywood’s glass ceiling that inspired her subsequent generations of heroines to push the envelope and aim beyond the limits set for them. She paved the way, and was a trailblazer.
Here are four of my favourite Sridevi-owned roles that redefined the way women were portrayed in Hindi cinema.
In one of my favourite Sridevi films, she was the motor-mouth, street smart and fiery Manju – showing us how to live life exactly on our own terms and kick ass, or crack a whip, whenever required. Manju makes no apologies for enjoying a drink or two. Compare this with Deepika Padukone in Cocktail, who has to be transformed from an inebriated wild child to a reformed teetotaler if she wants to bag Saif Ali Khan. Chaalbaaz makes no pretences of taking itself too seriously, and yet there is paisa-vasool entertainment and a social message.
As a woman, who falls in love with someone who loved her mother, Sridevi’s Pooja was way ahead of her times. Pooja from Lamhe knew exactly what she wanted and did not once hesitate in asking for it. She did not revolt against the society but simply held a torch to light the paths of the female audience (without telling them to burn their bras).
In the film that gave her career a new dimension, Sridevi’s Chandni showed us how it was always better to walk away from a toxic relationship rather than settle for the abuse. She was a woman who is determined to create her own independence despite being left by her lover. She also taught us that women could and should, exercise their choice. She fought for love but never fell low in self-esteem.
Shashi was an ordinary housewife who makes the extraordinary choice of moving out of her husband’s shadows. She does not wait for a knight in shining armour to rescue her. The ‘laddoo-maker’ (as she was called by her husband) was about the emancipation of a housewife, who takes a stand against her bullish husband. In her strong and silent way, Shashi Godbole taught us that no one can stop us from getting where we want to be – with unmatched grace and humility. She did not have to shout from rooftops, she had to just be. Herself. Resilient, strong, determined.
The way I see it, it is not just an actress that we have lost. We have lost the opportunity to see all the women characters that this powerhouse could have unleashed on the silver screen. There is definitely a hole in Bollywood’s sky that is shaped like Sridevi. And for those who thought she was just a pretty face, I would like to sing a verse from her iconic number – “Samjhe Kya Ho Naadaano, Mujhko Bholi Naa Jano…”
Text by Aarti Kapur Singh