Sridevi Was Sri Diva – the Best of Them All

My pick of the best on-screen moments of Sridevi, the incredibly versatile, fun actress who lit up Indian cinema.

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Sridevi was the original diva, who spanned decades and languages. And she was the best of them all.
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She did it all – song and dance, drama, sepia, bell bottoms, romancing sexagenarian superstars, realism, award-winning roles, plastic surgery, a Padma award. And to think, a heart attack took her. Well, she always was a heart-stopper.

Just ask anyone born in the 80s, or earlier. Or later. Pretty much anyone who has seen 10 seconds of her on screen, in any of her movies, in any language. Sridevi is of that generation of actresses who were prolific in not one, but at least three languages. Their dominion spanned hearts across the north and the south of the country. And Sridevi was the biggest of them all.

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She might have been pushed into acting as a child, but she took to it like a fish to water. She packed in a lifetime’s worth of star material in her career, and created some indelible moments in cinema. Here’s how she ought to be remembered.

She Could Let Go!

It isn’t about make-up or cotton swabs behind your gums. The kind of abandon Sridevi was capable of, even during the meteoric rise of her ‘glamour’ quotient, is an inspiration to actors of any generation. She played an innocent woman-child in Moondram Pirai (remade as Sadma).

This Balu Mahendra creation is often touted as a Kamal Hassan accomplishment, but Sridevi is the undeniable star of this poignant film. She abandons her sexuality in a way that’s powerful, and quite unparalleled. Armed with the same face, limbs and physical assets, she forces you to acknowledge inner beauty.

She Could Ooze Oomph Like You Wouldn’t Believe

I saw Mr India in 1989. My mother wouldn’t let me watch this song until, well, forever. I sneaked a peek when it happened to play on cable TV a few years later. The result could be best described as an awakening of sorts. Women in saris getting wet in the rain isn’t a new or unique phenomenon. It is a trope. But Sridevi danced on that razor’s edge between sexy and raunchy. She never missed a step.

How can one person be so in control of one’s body and movements and expressions? Well, it’s ours to enjoy, not to reason why.

She Could Keep It Hilariously Real

Okay, there’s one movie, just the one, which lets me forgive Ram Gopal Varma his Twitter lapses and porn star idiosyncrasies. The movie is Kshanakshanam, a fantastic, beautifully believable, hilarious crime caper. It starred Venkatesh in one of his best roles, and was elevated to cult status by a darling of a performance by Sridevi, who is pushed into Venkatesh’s reluctant protection by mobster Paresh Rawal (trust me, this is gold).

She plays a suburban single woman professional, harangued by her mother to get married. She navigates lechery with deft, polite irritation and holds on to her independence with conservative fear. In this scene, she tries to break into her apartment to get back crucial evidence.

She Could Bust Block Like a Boss

It’s not easy pulling off a double role, particularly if you’re in the 90s. The story is invariably the same ‘separated at birth, one’s brash the other’s timid’ trope.

Apart from being done to death, there’s this danger of the parts seeming really stereotyped. So when Sridevi did Chaalbaaz, she redefined it. The timid one wasn’t just timid, there was a kind of fire in her, which she couldn’t quite control, but was afraid to let out as well. And the brash one was just too much fun. Go watch Naa Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai... for the brash version. This one’s an ode to Sridevi’s vulnerability.

She Was Super Smooth In Costume

It was one of Rishi Kapoor’s most insipid roles, right up there with Heena and Bol Radha Bol. Fortunately, in this case, it was an excellent counterfoil to a crackling Sridevi, who played a shape-shifting serpent who had a lot of respect for her mortal mother-in-law.

Costume movies don’t age well. They’re tacky and stained with a very specific aesthetic that has a shelf-life of no more than five years. Unless they’re done well. Sridevi gets into the snake’s skin and makes it her own. Convincingly over-the-top performances from Amrish Puri and others helped too.

She Could Come Back Like a Queen

As a child of the 80s, I was somewhat more inclined to cheer for Sridevi in English Vinglish than Kangna Ranaut in Queen. The latter undoubtedly had a better script, arguably better production values, but it was such a treat to see Sridevi on screen again, in her element again, looking as if she’d never left, again.

So if you’re looking for that kind of a comeback, you can go awwww with this link right here. But the comeback that kept me awake nights, staring up starry eyed and imagining heroic romances of my own, was the one in Khuda Gawah, when the warrior queen, maddened by the loss of her love, is redeemed when he returns. The look she throws Amitabh Bachchan as they drag the cretinous villain between them like a prize ram, is the look I want to leave this remembrance with. On horseback, defiant, extraordinarily beautiful, and full of love.

(Anand Venkateswaran is a communications professional who writes on film, TV, books and other available surfaces.)

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