Among Sridevi’s best-loved films is a remake of a remake of a remake of a remake. The 1964 Telugu hit Ramudu Bheemudu spawned Ram Aur Shyam with Dilip Kumar in 1967 and Seeta Aur Geeta, starring Hema Malini, in 1972. Pankaj Parashar’s Chaalbaaz, made in 1989, took the familiar idea of identical twins separated at birth and gave it the wacky, comic-book treatment. Sridevi plays the demure and god-fearing Anju and the street-smart and liquor-loving Manju. When their places get swapped, Anju falls in with taxi driver Jaggu (Rajinikanth). Manju takes Anju’s place and whips into shape her sadistic uncle Tribhuvan (Anupam Kher) and his partner Amba (Rohini Hattangadi) while falling for Suraj (Sunny Deol). Packed with 1980s pop culture references and fashion, a popular soundtrack by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and heaps of comedy ladled out by Parashar and Kamlesh Pandey, Chaalbaaz counts as one of Sridevi’s finest movies.

Parashar, the director of the cult television series Karamchand and the movies Peecha Karro (1986), Jalwa (1987) and Rajkumar (1996), tells about the minor and major ways in which Sridevi contributed to the production and created two of her most enduring characters.

Rohini Hattangadi played Sribaby, a character inspired by Sridevi, in Jalwa. I was pulling everybody’s leg in that film. I didn’t know that my next movie would be with Sridevi.

I was working on my prints for Jalwa at Prasad Film Labs in Chennai. The colour correction guys told [film laboratory founder] LV Prasad that this film is something different, and he came to check it out. He also happened to know my father, producer JL Parashar, very well.

Mr Prasad called up the producer Poornchandra Rao and said, sign this guy. I went to meet Poornachandra when he came to Bombay. My father told me, whatever he says, don’t argue with him and just sign a movie with him.

I didn’t have a script in mind. I asked Poornachandra, could you get me Sridevi? I want to try out Seeta Aur Geeta. She was in America at the time. He gave me a signing amount of Rs 11,000 and said, she is on. What about the script, I asked. He said, that’s your problem.

He even had Sridevi’s dates. I had seen her only once before, when she performed a dance at the muhurat of Mr India. She looked like a goddess. I crossed my fingers at the time and hoped I would get to work with her.

Poornachandra fixed up a meeting with Sridevi. She was shooting for a film, and had on a feather boa and blue contact lenses. She said, tell me your story. I hadn’t written anything down. I narrated the plot of Seeta aur Geeta from the beginning to the end. She looked at Poornachandra and said in Telugu, I am on. The day I signed Sridevi, my father went all over the building distributing sweets.

Sridevi in Chaalbaaz (1989). Courtesy Lakshmi Productions.

I later confessed to Sridevi that what I had narrated to her was the script of Seeta Aur Geeta, not Chaalbaaz. She told me she knew that, and that she had watched Jalwa on a video cassette. She said, I know you know exactly what you are doing; don’t worry, it will be different.

Kamlesh Pandey and I wrote the film at Poornachandra’s farmhouse. I used to call Kamal Haasan for tips every day and tell him, this is what I am planning. We were friends from the time of Karamchand, when he had called me and told me that he was a big fan of the TV show. He was a sort of guide on Chaalbaaz.

Kamal told me, don’t try to be too different from Seeta Aur Geeta, it’s a classic. Don’t change the emotional graph of that story, just do your own stuff. Don’t worry, Sridevi will be very different from Hema Malini.

On the first few days of the shoot, Sridevi was distant. She wouldn’t talk much, and we could not communicate. We used to talk through her make-up man or her assistant. Then I showed her the rushes of what we had shot, and from that moment on, she was a totally different human being. She looked at me and smiled and said, this is good. From then on, we became a team.

Once she opened up, Sridevi could be very witty, funny, a wacko. Once she trusted you, she became a totally different person. She was very closely involved with the production. She would call and tell me, I just thought of this, why don’t we do this. For instance, for the song Tera Bimar Mera Dil, she suggested changing costumes every four lines. For that, we would have to change the sets too. She said, go ahead, make some minor changes to the background. And that’s that we did.

Sridevi also improvised some of her lines and scenes. There is that scene in which she goes to a bar to have beer and meets Sunny Deol. She said that the scene wasn’t funny enough, that she wasn’t getting the timing. The whole scene was improvised.

Sunny Deol told me later, you should have warned me at least.

There is also the scene in which she imitates the actor Raaj Kumar while threatening Amba with a knife. The scene was originally supposed to have been performed by Shakti Kapoor. She said, I want Shakti Kapoor here, I want him to say the lines. He played the scene first with Rohini. Then she did the scene herself.

She was very modest. I would finish a scene and immediately move on to the next one. She asked me, is it working out, you are not saying anything. I said to her, you are Sridevi, you are fantastic. She said, I need reassurance too.

I would throw something at her, and she would throw something at me, and that’s how the film grew.

One valuable piece of advice she gave me was about the song Na Jaane Kahan Se Aayi Hai. She told me, don’t take this song lightly, otherwise you will miss out on a classic. She had a sixth sense of what would work, having done so many films. Don’t come on the sets and improvise, she told me. So choreographer Saroj Khan and I storyboarded the whole song.

When we were about to shoot the song, there was a strike at Mehboob Studio. We had three shooting days and had to finish the song by Sunday night before the strike kicked in. On Saturday, Sridevi came in with a temperature of 101. But she said, we are going to finish the song anyway, just keep my mother away. I remember her exact words: give her a magazine and a Gold Spot. She didn’t want her mother to know that she was ill.

Her secretary, Hari Singh, told her, shut down the shoot, you are ill. She had the rain machine put on and pushed Hari Singh into the water and he got drenched.

We shot the song through the day and night till 2am. But she wasn’t finished yet. She distributed money to the whole unit. After that, we went to the twin theatres Gaiety-Galaxy, which we had requested to be kept open, and organised a Chhayageet of sorts of her older songs. The entire unit watched her songs from other films. All this finished by 5.30am. She cancelled her shooting for the next few days and said, I am ill.

It was an incredibly smooth shoot. We shot Chaalbaaz without any pressure, and without too many discussions about what we were doing. I was 31 at the time, and for me to get a producer like Poornachandra and a star like Sridevi was fantastic. If I had been serious and hadn’t had fun, the mood would have gone.

With Sridevi, there was no training, no method acting, it was all inbuilt. There is that scene where Anju has been whipped by Tribhuvan and tells Annu Kapoor’s character, I want to die. He says, remember, whoever gave that whip to Tribhuvan gave someone else the power to take it away from him. We meet Manju in the next scene.

I had kept three hours for the shoot. I thought it would be finished by lunch. Sridevi got the scene in the first take. I told the cinematographer, Manmohan Singh, should we get another take? He said, what for, it’s in.

Saroj Khan would say that Sridevi was like a light bulb, switch on and switch off. I don’t know what it was, some kind of cosmic energy. I asked her once, how do you do it? She said, nothing, I do nothing.

Rajinikanth used to jokingly call her “Srideva”. Rajinikanth came with the rest of the package. When Poornachandra signed me, he said, Rajini will play one of the roles. I watched some of Rajinikanth’s comic scenes and realised that he was fantastic. But would he play second fiddle to Sridevi? Poornachandra said, he will steal the scene from her. He too would add little things here and there to his scenes. He was very non-starry, just like Sridevi.

Would I have made the film if Sridevi wasn’t in it? No. We shot the title sequence after the shoot was wrapped up. Sridevi asked me, what are you doing for the titles? Do something like you did for Karamchand. But the movie was over and I didn’t have her dates any more. She said, I will give you time, I will change clothes and come whenever your sets are ready.

I ran into her last month. She told me, hanste khelte humne Chaalbaaz banayi thi. We should do another comedy, bring me a script.

(As told to Nandini Ramnath.)

Also read:

The magic of 1980s hit ‘Jalwa’, starring Naseeruddin Shah as a hunk on a drug trail

Sridevi was an enigma by design, alive in front of the camera and elusive away from it