The first time Sridevi was seen as an adult on the screen, she was crying like a baby.
Understandably so: adulthood is scary, and Sridevi’s Tamil filmography in the 1970s and ’80s is full of characters who are put through the most trying circumstances, including fending off lecherous men, discovering the bitter-sweet aspects of sexuality, and dealing with devious husbands and stalkers. This was a phase of struggle for Sridevi, the pre-stardom period that saw her deliver some of her finest performances under Tamil cinema’s most well regarded filmmakers.
Sridevi has, of course, come a long way since her early days in Tamil cinema. The prolific actress will be seen in her 300th title Mom, directed by Ravi Udyawar, on July 7. The movie will be released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu – all languages in which Sridevi is proficient and has delivered hits. (She has appeared in Malayalam cinema too.)
Sridevi started out as a child actor at the age of four in 1969. Her first leading role was in K Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (1976). In the opening scene, a teary-eyed Selvi (Sridevi) watches the climax of Arangetram (a Balachander film from 1973) and bursts into tears when the heroine goes insane. Selvi, barely 18, is crestfallen. “No path is without stones and there is no woman who has not struggled,” her sister tells Selvi. The statement acts as a forewarning, for Selvi too will face hardships in Moondru Mudichu.
Selvi falls in love with Balaji (Kamal Haasan). But Balaji’s roommate, Prasad (Rajinikanth) has set his eyes on Selvi. When Balaji accidentally falls into a lake, Prasad, a swimming champion, looks on and lets him drown. He pursues Selvi, who ends up marrying Prasad’s widower father to fend off Prasad’s unceasing advances.
Moondru Mudichu made heads turn – here was a former child actor playing a nuanced adult role with ease and fealty. She was only 13 when she played Selvi.
When Balachander died in 2014, Sridevi wrote that Moondru Mudichu changed her life forever. The praise was mutual. “As far as Sridevi is concerned, she was a child when she first worked with me. But I found her to be very intelligent,” Balachander said in an interview to The Hindu in 2011. “Though she was 13-14, she had the understanding of a 20-year-old. She was a very quick learner and understood the nuances of her character. She learnt on the spot.”
Moondru Mudichu set a template for the kind of roles that would follow Sridevi in Tamil cinema for nearly a decade. Her filmography between the mid-’70s and the mid-’80s comprised mostly coming of age roles, which coincided with her own blossoming as an actor.
In her next iconic role in Tamil, Sridevi played 16-year-old Mayil in Bharathirajaa’s 16 Vayathinile (1977). Mayil dreams of becoming a teacher, but her mother wants her to marry Chappani (Kamal Hasan), a developmentally challenged cousin. The village rowdy Parattai (Rajinikanth) also has his eyes on Mayil.
Meanwhile, Mayil falls for a doctor who comes to their village. After tarnishing her reputation, the doctor leaves Mayil. Things go south from here on.
Sridevi delivers a powerhouse performance as Mayil. She is playing her age, and she seems more comfortable in her skin. One of the best moments is Mayil’s articulation of her awareness of her sexuality. “I’m not a cuckoo, I’m a peacock,” she says, and giggles in bed.
Apart from being a hit, 16 Vayathinile was iconic for other reasons. In The 1970s and their legacies in India’s cinemas (edited by Priya Joshi and Rajinder Dudra), Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai writes “16 Vayathinile changed the course of Tamil cinema by taking the camera out of the studios and into the villages and its natural landscapes.”
Apart from Balachander, Bharathiraja bolstered Sridevi’s acting skills. He cast Sridevi again in another reputed film, Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), with Kamal Haasan. This time, Haasan was cast as the anti-hero, while Sridevi played a woman who has to protect her life and her sexuality yet again. Dileep (Hasan) is a serial killer who ends up marrying Sharada (Sridevi). It ends badly after she discovers Dileep’s story and runs for her life.
Sridevi’s characters in her early years are hardly damsels in distress. They are solution seekers who confront their problems with fortitude and imagination. It is Selvi who comes up with the idea of marrying Prasad’s father. Chappani saves Mayil from rape, but she is the one who decides to wed him.
Sridevi held her own against two actors who were charting a similar path to stardom. The Rajinikanth-Sridevi-Kamal Hasaan trinity was one of the highlights of ’70s Tamil cinema. Sridevi and Haasan were paired in many films across genres, including Manidharil Ithana Nirangala (1978), Kalyanaraman (1979), Thaayillamal Naan Illai (1979), Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980) and Meendum Kokila (1981). The Rajinikanth-Sridevi pairing too was well received through such films as Priya, Pokkiri Raja (1982) and Naan Adimai Illai (1986).
The best Sridevi-Haasan pairing is in Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai (1982). Remade in Hindi as Sadma, Moondram Pirai features Sridevi as a woman who regresses into child-like behaviour after developing retrograde amnesia. Her relationship with her rescuer (Kamal Haasan) forms the crux of the tragedy.
“The first thing about Sridevi is that her absorbing quality is astounding,” Kamal Haasan said at an event recently. “I was a senior student in K Balachander’s school. When the teacher wasn’t around, I used to bully her. Though we did several romantic scenes, the bond we shared was more like schoolmates hanging around.”
Sridevi’s final Tamil film in the ’80s before moving to Mumbai and Hindi cinema was Naan Adimai Illai (I Am Not a Slave). She returned to Tamil cinema only in 2015 with the Vijay starrer Puli. Not bad at all for an actress who began her career in a pile of tears.