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Joie De Vivre defined Sridevi

Sri Devi, Indian Film Institute

Even as one tries to come to terms with Sridevi’s demise the one thought that is repeating itself is, is she really gone? How can someone who was posting pictures of herself and her loved ones from a family wedding be really gone in the space of a few minutes? How much did she suffer in her last minutes? How did she go? Speculation is rife on social media on what really happened… but how is it important? How could that happy, warm beautiful person – the star of so many films and the heartthrob of millions be just disconnected from life? Like a light that has been suddenly turned off. How can one write an obit about someone who lived and breathed life each moment?

I was with the morning papers yesterday when my husband walked into the living room and said, ‘Sridevi passed on, you know that – don’t you?’ And I was like, ‘What? Are you sure? You’re serious? You’re sure this is not fake news? Turn on the TV.’ And there they were: the images. Her last dance at nephew Mohit Marwah’s wedding; her last wave and flying kisses to some guests; her elegant self posing with Khushi – her younger daughter; a family picture with Mohit and his new bride Antara. Sridevi was living her life to the hilt. Or so it appeared.

Another panel on the same split screen was focusing on scenes from her films - some inane, some intense, some legendary and some close-ups. She had it all. Those eyes, that spoke so much; that inimitable smile which could launch a 1000 ships; those dance moves which every little girl during the late 70s and early 80s wanted to emulate – can anyone capture Sridevi’s joie de vivre that set screens afire?

And yes, yet another section on the screen had different anchors hurriedly and quickly calling her acquaintances, friends, colleagues, basically anyone they could find - to share anecdotes, their choice of her best films, describe her last moments… some pulled out her interviews, some her memories… as though trying to fill a void; a void that now feels like a bottomless pit. All that is left now is analysis and post-mortem of films, performances, co-actors, her style, her fashion sense, her legacy and of course (last but not the least) of her mortal remains. Of what killed her? Of how did she die? 40 hours on, and I am still struggling to come to terms.

Did I know Sridevi? As a film critic, as a cine enthusiast, sure I did. Am I huge fan? Perhaps not. Still, there can be no taking away from the fact that, she had some exemplary performances to her credit and one has always admired her ability to carry off even the most ludicrous of roles with a lot of panache and chutzpah. But then that’s the hallmark of a great artiste, isn’t it? They are as much at ease with the absurd as they are with the sensible. If one wondered what possessed her to take on a Nagina and a Tohfa, one admired her for having the gumption to portray a five-year old caught in a grown up’s body in Sadma. If Mawali and Nigahen were best avoided even on bad hair days, Chandni and Mr India could be watched again and again.

Sri Devi in Nagina and Nigahen

Nagina & Nigahen - Both these films are counted amongst Sridevi's blockbusters, even though they had little content cinematically

It is very tough to figure out which performance of Sridevi’s can be rated up there amongst the best but a few – perhaps just five make it to the top, amongst the Hindi lot. As for Southern cinemas she was way, way ahead of competition – be it in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada or Malayalam movies. Who can forget her as Sevnanti in 16 Vayathinile (1977 / Tamil) directed by P. Bharathiraja where she as a young woman is caught between two lovers, portrayed by Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth? Or the Ram Gopal Varma directed road film Kshana Kshanam a comedy which went to become a sleeper hit (1991 / Telugu) with Venkatesh and Paresh Rawal. Her portrayal as Kokila in Meendum Kokila (1981 / Tamil) directed by G. N. Rangarajan was loved by fans and critics alike and earned her a Filmfare Award for Best Actress as had Kshana Kshanam earlier.

Sri devi in Meendum Kokila

Sridevi received the Filmfare Trophy for Best Actress (Tamil) for Meendum Kokila, where she once again starred with Kamal Hassan, her co-star of 27 films

Still, it is Yash Chopra’s Lamhe that will perhaps be always cherished as one of Sridevi’s finest performances. As Pooja, a young, bubbly 18-year old totally smitten by a man who could have been her father Lamhe is a rare Hindi film which explores a man-woman relationship in most unconventional terms. Sridevi as Pooja, the daughter of Pallavi and Siddharth is in love with Viren (Anil Kapoor) - a man who was in love with her mother. After her parents die in a car crash, Viren takes up Pooja’s responsibility but refuses to meet her as she is reminds him of Pallavi. How Pooja wins him over forms the crux of the film. Way ahead of its time, Lamhe drew out the best from Sridevi. It came to be known for her comic timing, her seductive ways, her frustration at not being able to convince Viren of her love or her angst at his rejection time and again. Yash Chopra counted it amongst the top two films of his career – the other being Silsila.

Sri devi in Mr. India as Hawa Hawai

Sridevi achieved iconic status with the 'Hawa Hawai' song in Mr India. Her expressions, performance and style remain unmatched till date.

Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India is another film where Sridevi’s performance ensured that the audiences renamed the film Miss India. It was her film, even though Anil Kapoor, as Arun, played protector and hero to orphans. As a bumbling reporter Sridevi willy-nilly becomes a sleuth uncovering smuggling deals while trying to help Arun, his children and safeguarding their home. Songs like Hawa Hawai and Kaate nahin kat-tey, are now as legendary as the actress who essayed them.

Himmatwala and Sadma released within a space of five months in 1983 – the former in February while Sadma came out in July. While it was the Jeetendra starrer that became an instant hit and sealed Sridevi’s status in Hindi commercial cinema it was Balu Mahendra’s Sadma that went on to achieve cult status. Sadma, though helmed by Kamal Hassan was actually anchored by Sridevi when she played Reshmi a 5-year old stuck in the body of a grown up woman who has regressed to her childhood, following a head injury in an accident. Her performances especially in the song Ek dafa ek jungle tha and then again in Surmai ankhiyon mein and the last train scene when she fails to remember her friend and guide Somu are simply unforgettable. One is as mesmerized by the innocence of a child that she played, as one is stunned by her indifference after her recovery.

Sri Devi in English Vinglish

English Vinglish directed by Gauri Shinde marked Sri's return after a 15 year hiatus as a more mature actor

Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish (Hindi / 2013) where Sri portrayed a middle-aged mother seeking respect from her family makes it to the Best Five list too. Not just because it marked Sridevi’s return after a 15 year hiatus, but because it highlighted a far more mature and studied actress. Centred round the simple theme of a woman attempting to learn English, English Vinglish is a film that commands your attention. Sridevi’s Shashi is a shy, unassuming, nervous little woman who loves her family and is unable to ask for the love and respect she should get by way of right. As you watch the story unfold, you live and breathe Shashi’s small aspirations, rejoicing in her pleasure as she attempts to learn a new language, willing her to win each time she falters. Each scene evokes different emotions through the entire run time. You laugh and cry with her. Become one with her character. That was Sridevi’s strength as an actress. She took you along, made you a part of her world and had you falling in love with her again and again.

And finally there is Mom (Hindi / 2017) her last film – a film which without doubt will stand the test of time, and perhaps be counted as one of her most powerful roles. As a woman wracked by grief and anger simultaneously, Sridevi plays a seething mother out to avenge her teenage daughter’s rape. How she goes about it (with some help from cops and a detective) is what makes the film. As Devki, Sridevi internalized the pain and helplessness of a mother who sees her traumatized child suffering every minute. After the law fails allowing the perpetrators to go free post a botched trial, it is Devki’s turn to take the matter into her own hands.

Sri Devi in Mom

Mom testified to Sridevi's prowess as an actor supreme.

The debutant filmmaker Ravi Udyawar doesn’t give his heroine even one extra dialogue; there are no screaming, shouting and melodramatic moments announcing her intent. Just a quiet, determined murderous mind which will find peace after justice is done. No said recrimination, only action. If there is one film where Sridevi walked tall, dignified and stately as an artiste it is in Mom. It testified to her prowess as an actor supreme who even while performing in male dominated films, not only created a niche for herself but stood head and shoulders above her heroes and walked away with the accolades – critical and popular. It defined the star as an actor.

Actors come and actors go. But the shock of Sridevi’s demise refuses to subside. If the social media and the nation continue to be agog it is not merely because an icon has passed on or because a superstar is no more. It is because even in death (as in film after film) Sridevi reminds us of how life should be lived. If there is an outpouring of grief, there is also the numbing knowledge that life comprises uncertainty as surely as it comprises love, compassion, riches and fame. It is important to continue to live life every nano second because death will come calling anyway and when you least expect it.

*In Happier times - Sridevi with husband Boney Kapoor and daughters Khushi and Jhanvi Kapoor.

*Pic credit - Yogen Shah

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