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 lik . e 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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.