The Wonder that was Sridevi

It has been a few days since the life that was Sridevi came to an abrupt end but the feeling of utter disbelief refuses to go. It is tough to come to terms with the fact that a woman who redefined Indian cinema in many different ways could embark on such a swift exit. As I read through the huge variety of obituaries and tributes which have been rendered to her by numerous media outlets, I can’t help but notice how they pay obeisance to the legend on an extremely superficial level. Mentions of her films are made in passing; titbits about her personal life are served with sensationalist delight and for some obscure reason, an air of mystery is created around her demise which almost borders on hinting at foul play. None of them, however, talk about her talent, her persona or the indelible impact she had on the minds of the millions who took pride in being identified as her ‘fans’.

As the reigning queen of the 80’s and the 90’s, she’d captivated, enthralled and inspired at least two generations of cinema-lovers. I don’t particularly remember the first time I’d seen her on screen but I do have fond memories of how deeply she’d affected my childhood. Since the age of four I’d quite literally become an addict to her presence onscreen. Every time a Sridevi film was telecasted, I would drop whatever I was doing and pester my mother to let me watch it. On weekdays, she wouldn’t. But on weekends, she would grant me the privilege. There was something about the way she played each character which drew me in. Whether it was her impeccable comic timing, the innocence in her eyes, her graceful demeanour or the sheer power of her acting skills - is still beyond my understanding. However, what I do know is that the magnitude of her artistic potential was enormous. No wonder she was labelled India’s first female superstar – a title nobody before her or since her has been able to acquire and uphold with such panache.

Even before I’d turned ten, I’d made the transition from being merely an admirer to the owner of a prized possession – her pictures. Back in those days when the internet wasn’t omniscient, every single detail about film-stars was not available at the click of a button. The lack of constant reportage about the nitty-gritty of their daily lives probably helped maintain and retain their charm. The only connection you had with them was either through their movies or via newspapers. So in search of more details about the Sridevi enigma, I started collecting every picture, every article and every interview of hers that appeared in the papers. I would cut out the piece and paste it in a neatly maintained scrapbook. Then, I would tuck it away in my cupboard, only to be brought out on every occasion that left me emotionally drained. All I had to do was look at the beautiful person in my book, recall the way she tackled her enemies as the mischievous twin in 'Chalbaaz' or just bit them to death as the shape-shifting snake in 'Nagina' and suddenly, my turmoil would find an expeditious end. It was only much later that I realized that this was nothing but the power of art, the power of Sridevi. With her craft, she strengthened people.

My obsession with the legend slowly took a backseat when she decided to quit films in order to pursue motherhood. Most people thought that I’d given up on her because she’d gotten married. Somehow, I was to find solace in the fact that Mr. Kapoor’s first name was Boney which rhymed with my pet name, Noni. I still remember thinking how shallow this comparison was. Her personal life was never my concern. It was the magic that she unleashed onscreen which enthused me. Nevertheless, I grieved for her decision to abdicate her throne and moved on. She did appear for a brief stint on TV as Malini Iyer and though I watched every single episode because of my loyalty towards her, the show was far too quirky for my taste. Or maybe I was finally growing up.

The story of her comeback after a hiatus of fifteen years and how she went on to complete a whooping set of 300 films is too well-known to be reiterated. Even in the middle of crucial exams, I’d watched ‘English Vinglish’ with absolute glee. Her prowess had improved, her nuances had deepened and she had imperceptibly changed with the times. Despite the fact that her male contemporaries from twenty years ago were still cast as main leads, she possessed the sublimity to carry the weight of a film on her own shoulders- almost single handedly. Sridevi was her own hero.

All through her prime, for me, it was never about how hit her films were. The simple fact that she starred in them was enough. She encapsulated the very best that Indian cinema had to offer. Who else could switch as easily and as flawlessly as Sridevi from the subtleties of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films to the commercialism of mainstream Bollywood and yet have the courage to refuse a small role in the much celebrated ‘Jurassic Park’ because it didn’t match her stature. In a country dealing with the wounds of conflict and division, she was one of the rare few who could weave a thread of integration merely by the beauty of her work.

My sister called me on the morning of February 25 to inform me of her passing. For a second, I was devastated. It almost felt like a major part of my childhood had died with her. I wasn’t a journalist who could recall the last interview he’d had with her. Neither was I an actor who could narrate tales of her professionalism on set. I was just one of her many ‘fans’ who had developed an indescribable connection with her.

At 54, she has bid adieu - quietly, elegantly and gracefully. Whatever is left of her is either on reel or in memory. She leaves a vacuum and irrespective of who tries to fill her shoes, the void shall stay.

That's how eras end but that is also how Sridevi lives on.


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