In 1994, as a teenager, I watched a fairly terrible film called Laadla. It starred Anil Kapoor, Sridevi and Raveena Tandon. It was loud, sexist – actually, make that misogynistic – and eminently forgettable.
Except for Sridevi, who I couldn’t get out of my head. For months after the film released, my cousins and I played the ‘Understand? You better understand game’. In the film, Sridevi played a tycoon who arbitrarily and rudely ended conversations by staring people in the eye, clicking her fingers and declaring, ‘Understand? You better understand!’.
The person on the other end usually was the hapless Anil Kapoor who she would go on to sell for two crore rupees in yet another terrible film of the nineties, Judaai. I now understand only too well why I was a Sridevi fan – she was not just terrific in terrific films (Mr India, Chaalbaaz, Lamhe etc), she was terrific in terrible films too.
I still giggle to myself as I remember her in Judaai – she has just sold off her husband and sends him packing from their bedroom because his side of the mattress has the money she is now lolling on. It sounds ridiculous even as I describe it – it was ridiculous, but Sridevi wasn’t, even as she made a fine art of caricature.
Right after Judaai, Sridevi went on a 15-year sabbatical to raise a family and to lead a life more ordinary. I missed her. I watched Chaalbaaz at least a dozen times. Manju was the showy part, but it was Anju who was the scene-stealer in the legendary ‘Main madira nahi peeti ji’ scene with Rajnikanth. As Manju and Anju, Sridevi was two different people.
Similarly, Lamhe – the older Pallavi and her teenage daughter were sharply differentiated in spite of being lookalikes. It takes an actor of exceptional ability to pull off Bollywood’s favourite trope, the double role, with such clear character delineation. The only actor who has matched that in recent times is Kangana Ranaut as Tanu and Datto. (Kangana, incidentally, has publicly affirmed her admiration for Sridevi many a time).
I was therefore hugely excited when Sridevi returned as the shy Shashi in English Vinglish in 2012. She didn’t disappoint – English Vinglish is one of my favourite Sridevi films. She is vulnerable, faltering and heart-breaking as she deals with a cavalier but loving family.
After 15 years, Sridevi was back and as she filled the screen, we realised what our cinema had been missing all along.
And here is why I am filled with a deep sadness as we deal with her untimely death – it is because I fervently believe that her best was yet to come. In both the films of her second innings, English Vinglish and Mom – Sridevi demonstrated that she could still front a film without a big male star.
Like her heyday, she was still the hero of the film. She was the sole reason why you would watch a film. It was a smart comeback that Sridevi had scripted – unlike her male counterparts (who don’t usually comeback because they never go away), she played ‘age-appropriate’ roles but didn’t become the support function. Because superstars are never the support function – they are always the only deal.
Which is why it is fine if she didn’t end up doing Baahubali – though I wish she had, only so that we could have seen a little bit more or her.
That her comeback was restricted to two films will remain a lifelong regret – I, for one, had believed that this round would make up for some of the dodgy choices in her previous outings. Choices made when her career as a leading lady was ebbing – like Army, Chand ka Tukda or Chandramukhi.
Her second innings had come in a time where the industry was finally pushing the narrative – there are newer stories, different voices and diverse platforms. Just imagine the possibilities that were in store for formidable talent like her. Films, web series, shorts – she could have played anything or anyone with nothing to lose. This was the innings that could have been truly liberating for an artiste like her – now we will never know.
Our biggest sorrow will be that finally she didn’t do enough. But then again, maybe it is just as well. Extraordinary lives like hers don’t just fade away into normalcy. They always leave you wanting for more.
(Naomi Datta tweets at @nowme_datta and watched Lamhe a dozen times on VCR and once in a crummy theatre in Shillong. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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