Before the time of publicists and PR statements, planned photo-ops and the complete death of organic news around films and movie stars, were a set of stars that chose their lives as they saw fit. Their lives would come under scrutiny but they dealt with it in their own individual way.
Sridevi was one such star. The first bonafide female superstar of Hindi cinema that could command a script, make her heroes insecure and demand a high fee, did not speak to the press frequently. Nor did she bother to clarify her personal decisions often. Behind the glamourous heroine with twinkling, magical eyes and a stunning face, was an inherently shy woman, often mistaken as arrogant.
That she was a reserved person is evident in the Kaun Banega Crorepati episode that Amitabh Bachchan hosted in 2012. Amidst promotions for English Vinglish, Sridevi participated in the quiz show with her director Gauri Shinde. Shinde did most of the talking even as Bachchan gently chided Sridevi for being unable to answer a question about her own films. Wearing an amused expression, Sridevi merely smiled. She said nothing in her defense.
This encapsulates Sridevi’s persona over time. A Google search of her past magazine covers, when she was the only diva on the Bollywood horizon, Sridevi’s headlines are dominated by hints of her competitive nature, or her take on love. Often, these cover stories yield little from her; she rarely spoke about her personal life but dwelled over her professional metier at length. Explaining her position as to why she had rejected a couple of films opposite Bachchan, she said in a magazine interview in the 80s that his films had him doing all the work; there was little else for an artiste to add. So she believed younger, new heroines could do those roles better.
Read as arrogant then, her statement would have been lauded today. Sridevi said what movements like #MeToo or opinions that the current crop of leading heroines often say — if there is no meat in the role then there is not much reason for her to take up a film. After all, beyond her beauty, vivaciousness and immaculate dancing skills, Sridevi was a brilliant actor. Sadma, Lamhe, Chaalbaaz and even the trite 80s masala film Nagina are evidence of her acting prowess and stunning screen presence. She could hold her own against any star and deliver an unforgettable performance all by herself.
Sridevi has also been perceived as cold ever so often. The truth is she was shy. Having begun to act when she was just 12, she did not complete formal education or get much of a chance to interact with kids of her own age. Consequently, she developed a strong dislike for crowds and noise. Many might be surprised that Sridevi continued to use Mysore Sandal talcum powder well into her stardom.
That a person in the public eye can be shy and become a celebrity is often viewed with skepticism. Public perception views such people as naturally gregarious and fond of attention. Yet, many a legendary female celebrites have admitted to coping with shyness and finding way to survive fame. Being celebrity does not necessarily exclude being shy.
A good example is Jackie Kennedy, the world’s most famous and followed woman during the halcyon years of the JFK presidency, had stunned many when she admitted that she was inherently a shy person. She would retreat to the family farm at Glen Ora, a short distance from Washington whenever she could get a free weekend. Jackie had made the controversial decision to redecorate the White House because she found the building dreary and unwelcoming. She has admitted to being an introvert and a homebody when she rarely spoke during an interview.
Introverted and shy people living in the spotlight are often misunderstood as they do not always speak up or defend themselves. Unlike the erudite Jackie Kennedy, Sridevi rarely clarified her position or point of view. She liked to say little off a film set and was not considered friendly by most co-stars. She also did not speak Hindi very well for a long time, limiting her ability to converse. In an interview with Cine Blitz magazine, she admitted that all that she really wanted was the warmth of having a family, a loving husband and her caring mother. She kept her own company or her mother’s company, often drawing muffled laughs about living under the shadow of over protective parents.
It will do well to remember that she ruled Hindi cinema in the 80s when young women were treated poorly. Harassment, abuse and casual sexual advances were often reported to be common on set. There were no vanity vans to offer privacy and make up rooms were shared. Therefore, to protect themselves from overtures, a fiercely private person like Sridevi might have preferred to stay aloof.
1993 is the pivotal year when Sridevi gradually began to take a back seat from Hindi cinema. An interview with Filmfare magazine, with the headline Clash, featured her along side Madhuri Dixit whose successful film Beta (1992) had entrenched her firmly as the 'Dhak Dhak Girl'. She had also won audiences with the innuendo packed song 'Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai' in Khalnayak that year. Meanwhile, Sridevi had featured in the mega flop Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja produced by her future husband, Boney Kapoor.
Despite delivering a convincing performance in Gumrah, the film had not done well. While a one-page cover story in the magazine compared Sridevi and Madhuri, spotted similarities and yet, hinted at them being at each other’s throats, their interviews did not reflect bad blood. Sridevi denied a conflict and maintained that she did not see anyone as competition despite richly complimenting Madhuri and the effervescent Juhi Chawla. Given her experience and range across five languages as actor, perhaps she found herself having an edge over these younger heroines at that stage. Of course, change is the only fast moving constant in showbiz, particularly so for leading ladies.
Once again, getting her to speak about her life, feelings or thoughts did not go too far. Having married Boney, Sridevi was called a lot of nasty things and her co-star of many hits as well as brother-in-law, Anil Kapoor, admitted to not having much of a relationship with her or his brother. Sridevi continued to work in selected films and began to focus on her domestic life. Not once did she explain her reasons for marrying Boney. One must presume that they fell in love. Speaking out as to why she made this choice, especially when she was not acting in films, would not have altered the impression of a home-breaker that the film press had painted for her.
Having grown up on Sridevi, the burst of new heroines in the 21st century, armed with fabulous bodies, finely honed wardrobes and razor sharp publicists, one struggled to spot as a natural born star. Most seemed cultivated rather than organic. And then came Sridevi with English Vinglish, clad in simple cotton sarees, running a kitchen and household and delivering a heartfelt performance. One did not need to look too far to identify what it takes to be genuine movie diva. Notice the manner in which she wields pots and pans, spoons and spatulas and makes laddoos in this film — it looked like a woman who really could cook up a storm. Such fine detailing often goes missing from many performances today.
Having delivered multiple films in Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam and Hindi, Sridevi proves beyond doubt that she was prolific and versatile. Minus the packaging of a star that is common these days, her allure as a matinee idol will continue to fascinate forever.
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