Whenever I think of Sridevi, I think of a child. I wasn’t much older either. But I found her innocence worthy of exploration and training. She had that quality, something the Japanese call shoshin, which means the open mind of a student willing to learn.

‘We were brought up in a celluloid cage’

I was a child artist myself, and we were brought up in a celluloid cage. We were parrots. We could say things, repeat things they didn’t expect us to say. So that’s what it was. I understood it and I passed it on to her. People who watched our films always thought that we were either lovers or wannabe lovers or a could-have-been couple.

None of it, of course, was true. Till the end, she kept calling me ‘sir’. She even called me ‘sir’ when I was 19. There was a reason for that. Mr Balachander (KB), our mentor, gave me the responsibility of rehearsing her. I was equally naive, but I was a senior student. I was like the student who is made to run the class while the teacher is away. But then they always come and take over.

‘A bag of tricks’

I was sort of the student leader among the Balachander protégés, so I was a much hated man. KB sir would ask me to rehearse the rest of the actors while he was away doing something else. He used to say things which seemed rude at times, but then he was our teacher; he gave us life. We can’t complain. He was fond of me. He used to tell Sridevi and all other actors, ‘Watch this fellow perform. Why can’t you do like that?’ Which was a bad comparison. No one should do it. But Sridevi didn’t mind at all. If you gave her logic, she would set aside her ego. But you have to explain the logic.

Mr Shekhar Kapur is a brilliant man. I respect him a lot. We never thought of making a film together but we have discussed so many stories. He once said to me, ‘This Sridevi... She is a bag of tricks! What more does a director want? Do you have another bag?’ So there she was, arranging her acting wares in front of you. All you had to do was choose.

I was a choreographer too. I had worked as an assistant choreographer with Mr Thangappan. And in the early days, Sridevi couldn’t dance at all. She was very conscious about her feet. And I used to tell her that it doesn’t matter. That is the kind of relationship I shared with Sridevi. It is very strange to talk about it now. It is like saying that John Wayne was bald. It doesn’t matter. John Wayne was John Wayne.

She used to be very nervous as an actor in the early days. Maybe because she was a learner. Whatever she did used to seem very embarrassing to her. I had been through that, so I understood. We used to have conversations about it. She was my understudy and I made no bones about it. I was not kind. I am one of those teachers who are not kind. I had to knuckle her on the head—in Tamil we call it ‘Kuttu’. When you are trying to teach a sister or a younger sibling and they make a mistake, you knuckle them on top of their head. That was the relationship between me and Sridevi. It is very difficult to explain.

Like family

She was petrified of injections. I used to run around whenever we had a hospital sequence. I used to pick up a syringe and run around, saying that I have this and I now must give you this injection. I used to run around chasing her and her mother, Mrs Rajeswari, used to intervene.

When she was maybe 17 or 19, she used to sit on her mother’s lap at lunch time and her mother used to feed her. Her mother would pick up a morsel and stuff it into her mouth. I used to make fun of this excessive pampering. I remember telling her that mothers always die before the daughters so she better learn to eat on her own. And how she cried! These are the moments I remember.

I thought I had better experience than her so I decided to teach her. But actually, I myself had very limited knowledge back then. Though that didn’t mean that I couldn’t play the pompous teacher! But she was a humble student, and a very obedient actor.

I think the last time I met her was at an award ceremony in Mumbai. If I remember correctly, it was a couple of months before she died. Her husband was there, and I was there. We had just watched a footage of ours. She hugged me and wouldn’t let go. I was surprised. She hugged me tight and that is the last I saw of her. That is Sridevi. She might have had a short life, but it was a magnificent one nevertheless.

To me Sridevi was not just a dear friend and a respected colleague, but also someone I considered family. We shared an artistic kinship that transcended the boundaries of the silver screen. I may have schooled her but I was only her school teacher. She earned her PhD with the help of a greater teacher, her humility. But it was a great relationship which even some marriages don’t have. She was my darling, she was my child and that’s how I thought of her.

Excerpted with permission from Sridevi – The South Years, Amborish Roychoudhury, Rupa Publications.