Tamil cinema

Before Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, Sridevi was the undisputed superstar of Tamil cinema

She also managed to do what neither of them could: dominate Bollywood.

It is very difficult to come to terms with a person turning into a memory overnight. It is even harder to make sense of it if that is someone with whom you had no personal relationship, but who always felt like a part of your life.

Such is the power of mediums like cinema and sport – they allow a person to be a loved by millions of people whom they have never even met. Many Indians have wanted to be Sachin Tedulkar at some point, imitating his batting stance on the dusty streets we played cricket. Likewise, few could categorically state that they have never felt like being, or knowing, a character they saw on screen. This yearning to be much more than we are is what the cinematic medium exploits so well and that is how superstars are born.

Cinema can also be a marker of time. When we watch a movie or a scene years later, we sometimes associate it with a particular moment of our lives. In this way, even sequences with little cinematic value can become deeply significant. That is the power of memory and of nostalgia.

When I heard on Sunday morning that Sridevi had died the previous night, the first thing that came to my mind was something a school teacher had told me years ago.

My teacher was a film buff. Born and married into a conservative family, she had no scope of imitating her cine idols in real life, unlike the privilege that men had to flaunt their bell bottoms, coloured cut banians (sleeveless vests), or whatever else was the rage at the time. But when she became a parent, she was bestowed with a new power: she could make decisions for another person, her child.

Such was my teacher’s love for Sridevi that she went out of her way to dress her daughter in what she called “Sridevi dresses”. She was not the only one: Sridevi’s outfits in her movies would dictate fashion trends among numerous women in the late 1970s and ’80s. When the Tamil drama Vazhve Maayam came out in 1982, my teacher’s daughter was six or seven years old. She managed to stitch for her the black skirt that Sridevi wore in a song sequence, a skirt with a shiny black fabric.

Sridevi was elegance personified. I am often told by women of that generation that the pearl necklace the actress wore with her simple yet stunning sarees in Johnny (1980) put elaborate silk sarees out of fashion for a whole season. I wonder how many gave piano classes a try after watching the song En Vaanile in the same movie, in which Sridevi’s character mesmerises Rajinikanth’s with her singing.

Oru Iniya Manadhu, Johnny (1980).

It was an era of stupendous talent. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan had climbed to the top of the ladder very quickly. Director Balu Mahendra’s mastery over the camera made every scene a thing of beauty. And then there was Ilaiyaraaja. He was melody personified and his background score could turn scenes into intoxicating dreams. To make a mark as a woman in the highly misogynistic world of Tamil cinema, amid such colossal figures, was no mean feat. Achieving this put Sridevi in a completely different league. Even before Haasan and Rajinikanth were given that tag, Sridevi was the reigning superstar.

She also benefited from the kind of roles that her predecessors did not get. There were just a handful of roles for heroines in the 1950s and 1960s. Women played either historical characters – queens and princesses waiting for their knights in shining armour – or daughters of wealthy men who would be swept of their feet by heroes from modest backgrounds. With the 1970s came the character of a middle-class woman in an urban setting, emanating from the sensibilities of directors like K Balachander and Sridhar. Anything else was a rarity. Weighty characters for women, like that of Padmini in AP Nagarajan’s Thillana Mohanambal (1968), came once in a lifetime.

Sridevi found a mentor of sorts in Bharathiraja. The mannvasanai (literally, scent of the soil) characters he created, such as Sridevi’s Mayilu in 16 Vayathinile, turned her into possibly the first female star in Tamil Nadu who appealed to all markets. Here was a heroine who wowed audience watching cinema in tent halls in nondescript villages as well as the elite in Chennai’s Besant Nagar.

But Sridevi breathed life into these characters as much as the men who created them. Many of her directors could not look beyond Sridevi for many years, because they needed her calibre to inject life into a character. They benefited both from her popularity and her acting prowess. Sridevi played an important role in establishing their careers. Who could forget her role as a mentally challenged girl in Moondram Pirai (1982)? The movie’s climax is often hailed for Haasan’s dramatic acting. But Sridevi matched Haasan in every frame. In Moondru Mudichu (1976), she dominated over both her co-stars, Rajinikanth and Haasan.

Moondru Mudichu (1976).

This was also a time when television had gained a foothold in homes. This gave Sridevi an advantage that the previous generation of stars such as Savitri and Padmini did not have. By entering people’s living rooms through the small screen, cinema struck a more personal relationship with its viewers. By the late 1980s, Sridevi was in people’s homes almost every weekend, when Doordarshan aired regional movies. The technological revolution magnified her stardom. When she moved to Bollywood in the late 1980s and 1990s, she became the darling of advertisers such as Dabur, Cema and Lux.

A TV commercial for Dabur amla hair oil.

Sridevi became synonymous with beauty. She was the yardstick for an entire generation. “Un moonjiku Sridevi kekutho (You want Sridevi for your face)?” is an insult most men of that generation in Tamil Nadu would have received at some point.

As a star, she did what even Rajinikanth and Haasan could not dream of: dominating Bollywood. Ask them and they might say they were never interested in making the transition. But there is little chance they would have so fantastically ruled over a second film industry the way Sridevi did. This feat, however, was never celebrated enough, another clear mark of the misogyny in the industry.

Sridevi’s untimely death reminds us of Kannadasan’s emotional lines from the song Kanne Kalaimaane (Moondram Pirai): Yeno deivam sathi seithathu; pethai pola vithi seithathu (God has conspired for some reason; has made fate the way a fool would.)

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