As Selvi walks up to Prasad, ruffles his hair and says “Teek Hai” in a mock motherly fashion with a sweet smile but with hate and revenge sparkling in her eyes, women in the audience cheered her on (Moondru Mudichu (1976)). We feared for her life and wept when the brave young bride Gayathri caught in a porn ring run by her husband breathes her last (Gayathri (1977)). We hoped that Radha’s beau would recover his memory and come back to her and cried tears of joy when he did (Kavikuyil 1977)). We shed copious tears as the naïve, easily led child-woman Gowri comes to a sad end (Sayndhadamma Sayndhadu (1977)). We sang with Mayil to the Senthoorapoo as she dreams of a lover and a happy ending and ends up waiting for a life time to be united with her lover (16 Vayadhinile (1977)).
The year 76-77 marked the advent of 3 stars on the Tamil cinema firmament who would shine on the silver screen for the next 50 years. The brightest of them was the charming young girl with huge expressive eyes that twinkled in joy and mischief and glistened with tears in sadness, widened in shock and surprise, and closed in peace a she breathes her last in two of those films. Tamil audiences were mesmerised by this bundle of talent that we had seen since childhood come into her own as a leading lady as she enacted these characters in an intuitive manner considering she was barely a teenager then. From the get go, Sridevi presaged a new era of women centric films and this would mark her career right up to her latest cinematic outing Mom (2017). In a patriarchal industry to find a space for the leading lady in mainstream is tough enough; but to rise to a commanding position within those constraints was indeed an accomplishment.
As a child she starred alongside stalwarts of the previous generation – notably Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, Jayalalitha, Anjali Devi and Savithri. Her winning smile and twinkling eyes earned many a fan for the child. As a child, they had seen her as the divine yet precocious as Muruga and Krishna in devotionals Thunaivan (1969) and as Raja, the nephew of MGR in Nam Naadu (1969), as his sister in En Annan (1970) and as Ammu, who showered affection on her Rickshaw mama, Sivaji Ganesan in Babu (1971). As a young girl, she blossomed before our very eyes on the threshold of womanhood in Bharathna Vilas (1973). And now mouthing punch dialogues she captured our imagination with her mature performances as a woman in the first year after her debut. Sridevi, Baby Sree to us until then, had arrived as a leading lady. The irony was she could not watch her own films since they were certified ‘A’ and she was underage!
To have worked with such diverse directors as K Balachandar, P Bharathiraja, Devraj Mohan, R Pattabiraman in her debut year says a lot about the talent that they could all recognise and tap in her. Within two years, directors of all hues – Middle of the Road filmmakers such as Panchu Arunachalam, A C Tirulokchander and C V Rajendran, mainstream commercial directors such as S P Muthuraman, I V Sasi and R Thiagarajan , New Wave Directors such as Mahendran, RC Sakthi and Valampuri Somu – were vying to cast her in their films.
Sridevi twinkled as Shanti/Jenny in Vanakkuthukuriya Kadhalaiye (1978), as the rowdy Bommi in Ranuva Veeran (1981), as the blind daughter in Pilot Premnath (1978) as the shy sensuous Sarada who discovers her husband is a psychopathic killer in Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), as a troubled film star Priya whose life is in danger in Priya (1978), where Rajinkanth plays second fiddle to her, as the quintessential lover and mate Chitra in Dharmayuddham (1979), as the disturbed Shenbagam who witnesses the murder of her dear friend in Kalyanaraman (1979), as the traditional but jealous south Indian Brahmin wife Kokila in Meendum Kokila (1979), and as countless other women who danced, simpered, emoted, entertained and drew us into the darkened halls again and again with her seductive charm, comic timing and serious roles.
She was often named Radha as if to foreshadow her eternal yearning for love. Over the years, she perfected the child-woman routine combining a childlike innocence and an unselfconscious sensuality that sizzled before the camera. At a time in Tamil cinema when the feminine ideal was still demure, meek and coy, Sridevi dared to wear swimsuits and show some skin albeit within a self-imposed line. In Vazhve Maayam (1982), she has a song Devi, Sridevi written in her praise and is serenaded by Kamal Hassan (and earlier in the Telugu original Premabhishekam by the redoubtable lover boy A Nageshwara Rao (ANR)).
Apart from Kamal Hassan and Rajanikanth for whom she reserved some of the best years of her career here, she acted with all the male leads – Sivakumar, Jaishankar, Vijayakumar and even Arvind Swamy in a dud of a film in Malayalam, Devaragam. But three of her turns at the box office are evergreen in the minds of the Southern audience – Archana, in Johnny (1980), Devi in Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980), and of course Bhayalaskhmi/Vijaya/Viji in Moondram Pirai (1982). The first was in a J Mahendran film, the second with her mentor K Balachandar and the third was Balu Mahendra’s masterpiece. As the dignified and talented singer, she managed to steal the thunder from an equally appealing two roles by Rajanikanth in the first and held her own against an impassioned Kamal in the other two leaving an indelible impression in our minds.
The Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam audiences too watched some of these films and other commercial entertainers in those three languages with Sridevi doing her thing in front of the camera with the leading heroes of the day – ANR, NT Rama Rao (NTR), Krishna Shoban Babu, Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh etc. She then moved on to bigger dreams in Bombay in the early 80s.
In Tamil, we have a saying “Kiliya valarthu poonai kitta kuduthittom” usually said when we give away our daughters in marriage. Roughly translated it means “We nurtured a beautiful parrot and gave her away to the cat to enjoy.”Much like that, we watched as she transformed herself to fit into the ideal entertainment leading lady of the Hindi Industry with increasing success. In her reprisal of her Southern oeuvre in Hindi, the freshness was gone and the emotion seemed fake. The duality of innocence and sensuality that created a seductive siren who kept telling you to look up at her expressive eyes while the camera caressed her voluptuous body was still there but played up to a such a degree that it overshadowed her abundant talent to emote and perform nuanced roles. She had become Ms. Hawa Hawaii, Sri Baby, and Roop Ki Rani. But not our ‘Dil Ki Rani’. The flashes of brilliance could not be totally dulled and we did see them in Chaalbaaz and Mr. India. Unfortunately though, she might be remembered mainly for the rain dance or making love to her invisible lover.
We saw her briefly in two come back films with Rajanikanth in twin roles as Valli/Radha a street acrobat and a princess in Adutha Varisu (1983) and as a mother yearning for her child in the remake of the Hindi film, Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985) – Naan Adimai Illai (1986). In both those films, there was a slight disconnect for the audience because her new nose job made us feel this was not our Sridevi. Recently, the Tamil audience saw her become a much changed shadow of her former camera persona in the dubbed version of English Vinglish (2012) and almost a caricature as Queen Yavanarani in Puli (2015). And we will see her no more.
That she was the muse to three big Bs of Tamil cinema – Balachander, Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra speaks volumes of her talent and with each outing with these stalwarts she proved her mettle. In their films and other mainstream films, she traversed the gamut of shringara, ashcarya, bhaya, dukka, karuna krodha, hasya, bibhatsa, and shantha with ease – foreshadowing her felicity with the nava rasa – that catapulted her to fame and stardom.
Her popularity is not just because she was attractive and sensuous. Yes, her photographs adorned many a young man’s walls and inside doors of cupboards making her the ultimate male fantasy wrapped up and presented to them with the loving caresses and gaze of the camera.An entire generation of women too saw reflections of their sexual awakening, a nascent feminist awareness, an icon to look up to for style and grooming and an example of the nuances of manipulation and authority that could be wielded by a woman if she played the game right. Ultimately, she was a paean to hard work and aspiration to achieve their dreams whatever they may be and however much others may deride them.
As a budding feminist and a young woman who was rebelling against the expectations of feminine behaviour during my school and college years, there were days when I hated Sridevi for negating all that I was trying to accomplish with her simpering pouts and gyrations. The men in my environment went gaga over her and I went out of my way to be everything she was not. But as a film scholar, I am forced to admit that while she knew she was being exploited at times, that her image was being groomed and sold by men, she always found a way to put her stamp on it in a subtle way at first and later pretty much revelled in her power over them. As a Director’s actor, she chose scripts that offered her plenty of scope to perform. As a performer, she made every character her own and as a woman, she was calling the shots.
She stood by her choices – be it the decision to marry a married man, to take time off to be with her children, to conduct the final rites for her parents as the ‘son’ who fulfilled their aspirations, be it the kind of roles she chose to work on in the last five years. She lived life on her own terms. And that is true empowerment. And oddly, her death feels like a personal tragedy and a part of me feels like it has died with her.