(The following excerpt has been taken, with permission, from Chapter 5 – ‘Reel Regina’ of the book ‘ Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess’ – written by Satyarth Nayak. Published by Penguin, the hardcover is 296 pages long and priced at Rs 376.)
(The sub-headings are not part of the book, and have been added by The Quint.)
The comic-book flavour of Mr India had also perhaps allowed Sridevi to somewhat relive her lost childhood. Choreographer and director Ahmed Khan, who played one of the ten kids in the film, reminisces: ‘She would be quiet around others, but she opened up with us kids. We all got a glimpse of her childlike self, so much like all of us. She would get us chocolates and play games with us. In the football parody, she would deliberately pinch me or spoil someone’s hair to create that required tashan in us for that sequence. The scene where she feeds us was shot after lunch. We kids were actually stuffed with food but had to act starved. She kept teasing us throughout that she will make us eat all the pastries and samosas.’
However, beneath this puckish self was an impeccably informed mind.
In Mr India, A Goddess in Gold Stuns the World
Baba Azmi, the film’s cinematographer, who had worked with her in a Telugu film, shares: "We were shooting an outdoor scene and I was taking the meter reading of her face to adjust my camera. Just then a spot boy came running and held an umbrella over her head. Sri gently pushed the umbrella away telling him “Leave it . . . he’s checking the light.” I was stunned that she had such technical knowledge. In Mr India, before every shot, Sri would hold her mirror right next to the camera lens to check her face angle and lighting. I had never come across any other actor who was so aware."
Sridevi also had her own quaint methods of preparing for a scene. Once while visiting the sets of Mr India, Somaaya noticed that while Shekhar Kapur was explaining a shot to the actress in English, she was turning towards Srilatha, sitting next to her, and translating that whole thing in Tamil. It was quite a strange visual but Somaaya soon realised that it was simply Sridevi’s way of processing Shekhar’s instructions.
All Bollywood superstars must have that one solo chartbuster that forever becomes synonymous with them. For Sridevi, it happened in Mr India with Hawa Hawai. The song features a staple 1980s filmy situation where the heroine infiltrates the villain’s den under false pretences, but Sridevi turns this cliché into a cult. As the song explodes on-screen, the actress literally descends upon earth like a goddess in gold.
The prelude is vintage Sridevi as she starts to ad-lib nonsense such as King Kong, ping pong, Honolulu and Mombasa. You gape at her elastic face altering with every word, her gestures varying with every phrase. That Sridevi performs this gibberish with such affection again affirms that no matter what the material, she could do magic with it.
How Hawa Hawai Came to Be
But, according to Saroj Khan, what we see is just a fraction of the fun: "The full song has an extended prelude — a full one-minute intro music. Accordingly, I had choreographed a longer sequence where when Sri enters, there’s already a girl dancing and the boys giving her company. Sri has no idea how to join in and the boys gradually make her dance. She had done some super comedy there, but it got edited out."
That may sound like lost treasure, but the remaining chunk is tons of bullion. While Sridevi crackles with the flair of a 1980s pop-star, it is the stunts that she pulls throughout the song that make it epic.
Like how her eyelid droops as she croons ‘Hawa Hawai’ or how she inadvertently smacks her fellow dancer. How she pretends to lose her balance or drops her mic on her foot. How she squints her eyes while singing ‘Soorat hi maine aisi payi’. It is these ‘song acting’ gems that make ‘Hawa Hawai’ quintessentially Sridevi.
Saroj Khan reveals another trick that she and the star pulled: "There’s a portion before the second antara where it looks like we have shot in slow motion. In reality, Sri and the dancers are simply doing the step slowly to simulate slow motion. If you watch carefully, you can see that the people around them are moving at normal speed. Sometimes there would be no floors available for rehearsals and Sri would willingly practice in a studio corridor."
The actress had faked a similar slow motion back in Senthoora Poove for 16 Vayathinile and the difference shows how astonishingly she had evolved. Great comedy requires an actor to be brave enough to mock oneself and Sridevi does it wholeheartedly. She makes a fool of herself with aplomb and that makes Hawa Hawai unique. Interestingly, a flustered Kavita Krishnamurthy had called up Pyarelal to inform him that she had mispronounced a word in the song. The composer assured her that so rambunctious was Sridevi’s performance that her goof-up only added to the fun.
When Sridevi Learnt to Breakdance
While Saroj Khan was the song’s official choreographer, a tiny Ahmed Khan had also secretly chipped in. It was during the shooting of Tina’s hospital scene that Sridevi had called ‘Ahmu’ and two other kids to another room and asked them to teach her breakdance moves.
Having noticed that they were trained in that dance form, the actress had no qualms in making these youngsters her guru!
Ahmed proudly recounts his first choreographing stint at age ten: "We showed Sri ma’am some steps and kept telling her that they are difficult to learn but she picked them up in fifteen minutes. She grinned and said, “Now I will tweak it with my comedy.” That version is what you see in Hawa Hawai."
The fact that she added her own secret sauce to every song is what makes them so unique. I was zapped that day that despite being such a huge star, she had the humility to learn from even kids like us. She’s the only actress who could dance just with her face.