In July 2017, in an interview to a Telugu news channel, Sridevi had to ward off reports of exaggerated remuneration demands that led the makers of Baahubali to cast Ramya Krishna instead of her in the role of Sivagami. Thinking back amid the shocking news of Sridevi’s death, one wonders what a sensational finish a role in Baahubali would have been for Sridevi in Tollywood, where few dominated like her.
While Savitri will always be considered the numero uno of the Telugu film industry, is it doubtful whether even she managed to steal away the limelight from the male stars for as long as Sridevi did. One of my first memories of watching a movie on the big screen was Ram Gopal Verma’s 1991 classic Kshana Kshanam. Playing the role of unsuspecting middle-class woman Satya, who inadvertently gets caught in a crime saga, Sridevi comfortably outwits the then budding Venkatesh (playing the role of Chandu). Satya is petrified about the crossfire she finds herself in, yet assured by Chandu’s presence. Few leading women could ever tell a story as clearly as Sridevi did with her eyes in this superhit song from the movie.
A year before that, Sridevi was literally out of the world as a celestial being stranded on Earth in Jagadeka Veerudu Atiloka Sundari (Chiranjeevi played the hero). Portraying the innocence of a heavenly being whose confusion is couched in fun-evoking textbook Telugu, Sridevi’s brilliance in torpedoing Chiranjeevi to superstar status cannot be underestimated.
If Sridevi had a significant role in heralding the careers of Venkatesh and Nagarjuna and playing a role in Chiranjeevi’s path to superstar status, she, quite remarkably, had an equal role in the second coming of many male Telugu superstars of the previous generation. Easily filling the void left by Savitri, Jamuna and other behemoths, Sridevi scored one gigantic hit after another with NT Rama Rao in Vetagaadu (1979), Sardar Papa Rayudu (1980) and Bobbili Puli (1982). Much before Kaate Nahi Kat Te in Mr India (1987), Sridevi raised temperatures in the raunchy Aaku Chaatu Pindhe Tadise with 56-year-old NT Rama Rao in Vetagaadu (1979).
Despite her work in Telugu films and the heft of the male superstars she worked with, it is with Krishna that Sridevi had the longest and most memorable association. Not an year passed between 1979 and 1987 without a movie featuring the both. In 1982 alone, they notched up eight movies together. With a remarkable 29 films as the leads, the duo were a given formula for a hit in the ’80s.
Sridevi even did six movies with the legendary A Nageswara Rao and seven with Sobhan Babu. While the films with NT Rama Rao and Krishna catered to the masses, Sridevi showed that she was equally adept at playing the lead roles in sentimental, long drawn-out romances starring Nageswara Rao or Sobhan Babu. Premabhishekam (1981), in which Sridevi paired up with Rao, was one of the biggest hit of the ’80s.
While she romanced NT Rama Rao on the big screen towards the latter half of the ’70s and much of the ’80s, it is easy to forget Sridevi had some remarkable roles as a child actress in the early late ’60s and ’70s as well. Chitralahari, a ’90s Doordarshan programme of popular Tollywood movie songs, regularly featured this gem with a young Sridevi dancing to lyrics that taught audiences the mysteries of the just arrived telephone.
My north Indian friends often found it amazing that I got much of my knowledge of Indian mythology from the screen without having ever watched Ramanand Sagar. Telugu cinema has a long and illustrious history of movies based on episodes of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sridevi sliced a chunk of that legacy for herself with her role as Dussala in Bala Bharatam (1972).
Sridevi’s Tollywood phase not only spanned decades, but also outgrew illustrious male superstars. She had a range of work so diverse that it is impossible for fans of Telugu cinema to ever forget her.
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