Sridevi was easily the most dominant Hindi film actress of the 1980s and early 1990s switching from being a Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam film heroine of the 1970s to becoming Hindi cinema’s premier female film star in the 80s.
Born on August 13, 1963 (though some put her date of birth as 1961) in Sivakasi to a Tamil lawyer and Telugu mother, Sridevi began her cinematic journey as a child artist with the Sivaji Ganesan – Savithri starrer Kandan Karunai (1967). The film, directed by AP Nagarajan, was a mythological film with Sivaji starring as a minor local deity, Veerabaghu, who worked with the more popular male deity, Muruga. Sridevi played the role of the child Muruga. Among several films that followed, she also did the MGR – Jayalalitha starrer Nam Naadu (1969) as a child actor. The film was remade later as the Rajesh Khanna – Mumtaz starrer Apna Desh (1972).
Sridevi broke through in Tamil filmdom with K Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (1976) opposite Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. She formed a successful screen partnership with both superstars, herself becoming a major Tamil star with Bharathiraja’s debut, 16 Vayathinile (1977). The film, along with Annakili (1976), is considered as the film to take Tamil cinema out of the studio. The film is a love story in which a young girl Mayil (Sridevi) whose dreams are shattered when she marries the village idiot Sappani (Kamal Hassan). He rescues her from the local bully Rajinikanth whom he kills and has to go to jail. Mayil decides whe would wait for him. The film was remade by Bharathiraja as Solva Sawan (1978) introducing Sridevi the heroine to Hindi audiences (Actually she had done a couple of Hindi films earlier, Rani Mera Naam (1972) as a child and Julie (1975), playing heroine Lakshmi’s younger sister). However, Solva Sawan was a dismal flop and Sridevi concentrated her energies on Tamil cinema becoming its leading number one star in the period from 1979-1983. She also simultaneously did several Telugu films opposite superstars NT Rama Rao and Krishna thus averaging almost 15 films a year between Tamil and Telugu films in this period. She also did a spate of Malayalam films between 1976 and 1978 making her one of South Indian cinema’s busiest actresses.
Sridevi re-entered the Hindi film Industry with Himmatwala (1983), this time a superhit. The film co-starred ‘jumping jack’ Jeetendra and Sridevi’s appearance in a swimming costume in the film, which paid tribute unabashedly to her voluptuous figure earned her the label of ‘thunder thighs.’ The film, a reworking of the Telugu film Ooriki Monagadu (1981), looks at an engineer (Jeetendra) who returns to his village to find his mother (Waheeda Rehman) and sister (Swaroop Sampat) in dire straights. He finds out how his father, an honest schoolmaster, was framed and left the village in disgrace 20 years back. He vows to clear his father’s name and get revenge on the man (Amjad Khan) behind it all while straightening out the latter’s haughty daughter (Sridevi) as well.
A succession of hits with Jeetendra followed – Mawaali (1983), Akalmand (1984), Tohfa (1984) among others. These films, mostly directed by the likes of K Bappaiah and K Raghavendra Rao were nothing more than south masala films imported into Mumbai and Sridevi merely had to provide the glamour quotient in them which she did more than adequetely. An exception in this phase was Sadma (1983), a remake of her earlier Tamil film Moondram Pirai (1982). The film, directed by Balu Mahendra is about a schoolteacher (Kamal Haasan) who rescues a mentally deranged childlike woman (Sridevi) from a brothel and looks after her in his hillside home. When she finally recovers, she fails to recognize him. The film in both versions has superb performances by the lead pair. Sridevi as the child woman is simply amazing. The gamut of emotions running across her childlike face have to be seen to be believed. And to think that Producer Raj Sippy originally wanted Dimple Kapadia in Sridevi’s role. Sadma is unthinkable without Sridevi. Sadma, however, was a dismal flop and Sridevi had to content herself being the regular glam doll in films like the Amitabh Bachchan starrers Inquilaab (1984) and Aakhree Raasta (1986), and Subhash Ghai’s Karma (1986). The timing of her re-entry into Hindi filmdom with Himmatwala was perfect. The Hema Malini and Rekha era was ending and she and another southern rival, Jayapradha, had become the two top Hindi film heroines by then, slugging it out for the top spot.
Ironically, a film offered to Jayapradha (who refused it due to her aversion of snakes) helped Sridevi make it to number one. The success of Nagina (1986) made it a one woman race in the Hindi film industry as Sridevi’s slinky snake dances were a major reason for the film’s success. Her iconic dance Main Teri Dushman Dushman Tu Mera Main Nagin Tu Sapera in the film’s climax was the highlight of the film. The film even spawned a sequel, Nigahen (1989), which however was not as succesful as the original. Sridevi was now the undisputed queen of Bollywood.
Sridevi hit her peak with Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India (1987). With Anil Kapoor playing an invisible man, Sridevi is the life of the film as the journalist be it breaking onto the Hawa Hawaii boogie or being at her sexiest best as she swings ever so seductively to the rain song in a clinging blue chiffon sari Kaatey Nahin Katte Yeh Din Yeh Raat. Her take off on Chaplin was the film’s comic highlight as she displayed a razor sharp sense of comic timing.
Chandni (1989) was a fine adult love triangle that saw Sridevi score heavily as the woman caught between Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna. The film saw Yash Chopra return to form after a spate of flops and promotes Sridevi as the Indian film viewer’s ideal fantasy of Indian womanhood. She never looked better, affirming her position as India’s top female star. By now, roles were being written specially for her and she effectively proved that she could easily carry a film on her shoulders alone as well as any top male star of the time.
The same year she also made a solid impact with her double act in Chaalbaaz, an updating of Seeta aur Geeta (1972). Be it the weak, mousy Manju or the brash and bindaas Anju, Sridevi was a delight in each role in the film that won her the Filmfare Award for Best Actress. She would win the award again for another double role act – of mother and daughter in Yash Chopra’s possibly finest film, Lamhe (1991). However, in spite of Sridevi’s brilliant performances as both mother and daughter, the film, a beautiful and sensitive tale of cross-generational love flopped as audiences unfairly found it incestuous.
With the flopping of the magnum opus, Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja (1992), and average performance of Khuda Gawah (1992) and Gumrah (1993), coupled with the failure of most of her other films in this period, as against the success of films like Dil (1990), Saajan (1991) and Beta (1992), Sridevi found herself overtaken by the new queen of Bollywood, Madhuri Dixit.
Outside her Hindi films, Sridevi also won a Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the Telugu film Kshana Kshanam (1991). The film, directed by Ram Gopal Varma, is a Hitchcockian (wo) man on the run thriller in that Satya (Sridevi) happens upon a clue to some hidden loot. She is targeted by a gang led by Nayar (Paresh Rawal). Teaming up with petty crook Chandu (Venkatesh), the pair are pursued by both cops and criminals. The film opens with a bank raid, moves to surreal forest scenes as the couple rough it out and climaxes with Venkatesh fighting the gangsters atop a moving train!
On the personal front, Sridevi is said to got married to Mithun Chakraborty around the mid 1980s for a short period. She later got involved with her Mr. India and Roop ki Rani Choron ka Raja producer, Boney Kapoor (actor Anil Kapoor’s brother), and married him. After Judaai (1997), she quit films to raise a family. The couple have two daughters, Khushi and Jhanvi.
In 2004, Sridevi made a comeback of sorts in the television serial Mrs Malini Iyer as a goofy Tamilian housewife named… Malini Iyer, who is married into a Punjabi household! Sridevi got universal critical acclaim for her work the serial. That year also saw a long in the making film Meri Biwi ka Jawab Nahin, opposite Akshay Kumar limping to the theaters.
After a long hiatus, Sridevi finally made her feature film comeback with English Vinglish (2012). She is absolutely masterful as a housewife who is ridiculed by her own family for not knowing English and the film traces her efforts to learn the language thus leading to her blossoming into a strong and confident woman. The film did fairly well at the box office in India and was a smash hit in the overseas market. Sridevi was truly back! The following year saw her being bestowed with the Padmashri by the Government of India for her contribution to Indian cinema.
Sridevi returned to her roots down South, playing a key role in the Vijay-Shruti Haasan-Hansika Tamil film Puli (2015). Sadly, the film proved to be a major disappointment. She returned with an author-backed in Mom (2017), playing an avenging ange, taking revenge on her step daughter’s rapists. Mom is Sridevi’s show from beginning to end and she shows us exactly why she needs to take on more films. We see the actress rising above the script with a lovely performance that shows her in total control of her craft.
Tragically, Sridevi died of accidental drowning in her hotel bathtub in Dubai on the night of February 24, 2018. She passed away at a time when she still had so much to offer as an actor. The loss is huge for Indian cinema…