Sridevi passes away: How an avid Madhuri Dixit fan fell for her most celebrated rival's celestial calmness
I was never a Sridevi fan. But with repeat viewing of her films and much later, a first-hand interaction with the late actress, I found in her what I could never see in Madhuri Dixit.
"Tum khush ho? Toh main Sridevi hoon," says Shah Rukh Khan, mocking Preity Zinta's denial, while imitating the late actress' pose from the 1983 Jeetendra starrer Himmatwala. When I came across this hilarious scene from Nikkhil Advani's 2003 romantic comedy Kal Ho Naa Ho, I turned to my mom and asked who Sridevi was.
"She is an actress. She was in Chandni and Lamhe," said my mom, her eyes glued to the screen where SRK exchanged witty dialogues with Preity Zinta. An 11 year old, I had never heard of the names of these films. "She was in Mr India," my dad added curtly, mirroring the limited knowledge of Hindi cinema that I had back then.
Mr India was the cinematic counterpart of Shaktiman for me. While the Mukesh Khanna starrer was an episodic show, Shekhar Kapur's 1987 starrer was no less as it revealed a different part of its layered narrative with every viewing. In my next viewing, I watched out for Sridevi, who I had till then only considered a hapless victim of the pranks by Anil Kapoor's onscreen gang of kids. She was merely an object of amusement. And her Charlie Chaplin act further established her ability to evoke laughter at the expense of glamour.
In the same viewing, I saw everyone from my grandfather to my mother stare, without a blink, at Sridevi crooning 'I Love You' while drenching herself in the rain, lying on a heap of straw. What I enjoyed more was the climactic 'Hawa Hawai' where she seduced the bad guys (read: Mogambo) in an outrageous costume and with an incomprehensible prologue.
I wondered if one really had to watch dancing at its best, why would anyone not switch to Madhuri Dixit. Just like my mom, I was always a bigger Madhuri fan than a Sridevi. For the uninitiated, they had one of the most infamous rivalries in the history of Hindi cinema and Madhuri, as self-proclaimed film historians suggest, eventually replaced Sridevi in the pecking order.
Thanks to my mom, I was more exposed to the YRF school of SRK-Madhuri (Dil Toh Pagal Hai) than that of Anil Kapoor-Sridevi (Lamhe). Thus, the first time I heard 'Mere Haatho Mein Nau Nau Choodiyan Hain' was when I watched Kajol dance in Ruksaar's nikaah in Karan Johar's 2002 family drama Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Little did I know that it was his tribute to his childhood idol as he was also a Sridevi fan before a Madhuri buff.
I remember I was more excited for Madhuri's return to the silver screen in Anil Mehta's 2007 dance drama Aaja Nachle than that of Sridevi in Gauri Shinde's slice-of-life drama English Vinglish five years later. Even after I watched the latter, I remember I was underwhelmed as it was unapologetically low on old school drama. My first thought was: Come on, are you a '80s heroine? Where has all the 'Sajni Pe Dil Aa Gaya' swag gone?
And then came the unadulterated joy of experiencing a repeat viewing. When Sridevi chokes while saying 'jaaz' in her husky voice, when she hesitantly blushes after an American woman compliments her outfit (a sari), when she embarrassingly struggles to place her order in a cafe or when she delivers arguably the most restrained monologue ever in Bollywood, I saw a different Sridevi in her.
She was no longer the crowd-pleaser who yearned for the seetis and taalis of the single screen audience. She was also not a joker who subjected herself to slapstick comedy in order to make others laugh. She was also not the overtly seductive songstress whose sole aim was to leave the audience stunned with her latkas and jhatkas. Throughout English Vinglish, she was just Shashi Godbole, her character of a Mahrashtrian housewife. Then I recalled why my mom introduced her to me as "an actress" or why my father still refers to her as "an artiste". Her stardom still bows down before her talent.
What followed were repeat viewings of Chandi, Lamhe and yes, Mr India. Since she played younger roles, her mischievous eyes and smile became her trademark. But she optimally displayed her prowess in the scenes where she had little to do. From a star who was trying her bubbly impression too hard, she receded into her personal self and brought out her calm demeanour.
I came across this composed self when I interviewed her during the promotions of her last film, MOM. She insisted that all the video cameras be taken away despite my repeated explanations that it was a text interview and the cameras are in place only for a video interview later that day. The poor cameramen had to get rid of the setup but I did not mind as I managed to make the otherwise media-shy Sridevi speak her heart out, albeit in Hindi.
"Mujhe mann karta hai wapis retire ho jau. Camera pasand nahi aate aajkal (I feel like retiring again. I have started disliking cameras these days)," she said, staring back at the prying camera eyes with contempt. "But you never retired in the first place," I said in a star-struck-cum-reassuring tone. "Of course I did. Kids of your generation may not even be aware of my work. Dekhi bhi hain koi meri films? (Have you even seen any of my films?)," she said, almost reading my mind.
After I counted out loud on my fingertips all her films that I had seen, she smiled. Cut to the end of the interview, I knew I could not finish the chat without a question I always wanted to ask her. "Your first film did wonders at the box office. But all of Madhuri ma'am's recent films have failed. Is it because you have embraced the fact that you can't play a traditional heroine anymore?" Watching her smile fade away, I realised it wasn't the best question to ask the goddess of diplomacy. But never mind, it was the last question anyway.
"Madhuri can still play a star. I'm happy to just be an actor," she said, her timid smile resurfacing. And with those many words, she cleared my lifelong confusion of what was it about Sridevi that I kept looking for in Madhuri. The 'dhak-dhak' girl may have accelerated a lot of heartbeats but one does not yearn for an adrenaline rush all one's life. What one really yearns for is a sense of tranquility.
"Your questions were very good. Sorry for my answers," she said, smiled and walked away. And just like her decades-long career, she demonstrated yet again how she was unapologetic and uninhibited about her serenity.
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