In the bittersweet comedy English Vinglish released in 2012, Sridevi plays an Indian housewife (Shashi) who sneaks off to an English class while in New York for her niece’s wedding, so she can win some respect from her family. In the first class, when she is asked to introduce herself in English by her teacher, David, she stutters and mutters and explains that she is from ‘The India’ and runs a small business from home, making snacks called ‘laddoos’. To which her teacher says, ‘We have an entrepreneur!’
Shashi’s expression slowly changes from curiosity to awe as she takes in this big word, breaking it up phonetically as ‘on-tre-pre-noor’ over and over, trying to say it to herself till she gets it right. As she walks down the street after class, her body language slowly transforms from hesitant to confident and then, in the manner of having conquered the world, she breaks into a dance, Michael Jackson-style, on the pavements of New York.
Cut to Sadma (1983) in which school teacher Somu (Kamal Haasan) and Nehalata/Reshmi (Sridevi), whom he has just rescued from a brothel in Bombay, have taken a train and are now walking through the wilderness of Ootyto his home. She is gazing up at the tall, imposing trees around her in this new landscape in total bewilderment.
‘Yeh kya hai, kitna bada hai?’ (What are these things, so big and tall?) she asks, pointing at the trees.
‘Oh that! Eucalyptus,’ Kamal replies.
‘You…Kya?’ she tries to repeat, befuddled by this mouthful.
He smiles and breaks it down for her, enunciating every syllable, recognising that she is after all a six-year-old trapped in the body of a woman.
And that was the thing about Sridevi and language. When she said things over and over, even in a language she didn’t understand, she was ultimately able to wing it. Or we chose not to notice even if she didn’t (like when she said ‘yinkaar’ instead of ‘inkaar’ in Gurudev or ‘womeed’ instead of ‘umeed’ in Gumrah). When Sridevi spoke, it was not just the words you heard. Her eyes spoke, her face spoke, every wobble of her lips spoke. Her entire being spoke. Language was incidental.
In Khuda Gawah, Sridevi played a double role: one avatar was of an independent, free-spirited Afghan woman and the other was of her lookalike daughter, who travels to India in search of her father. She is a Pathan who speaks with a south Indian accent (perhaps the first south Indian Pathan), but then her charisma and spunk overrode her lack of language skills. When Mehndi (Sridevi) gets into an intense discussion with her foster father Khuda Baksh (Danny) over betrayal and loyalty and trust and integrity, it no longer mattered to me that an Afghan was speaking with a strange accent. When she says, ‘Lale di jaan’ (a term of endearment) to a passing car driver as she zips around in her rally, it mattered even less.
Sridevi had turned her language handicap into a quirk. Throughout her Hindi film career, she spoke Hindi with a thick, sing-song Tamil accent, and depending on whether one is a Sridevi fan or not, this could be grating or cute.
Born to a Tamil father and a Telugu mother, Sridevi never faced any problems in speaking the two languages in her films. That left Malayalam and Hindi. At the start of her career in Hindi films, her parts used to get dubbed, initially by prominent actresses and later by a noted child actress of the past, Naaz, who dubbed quite a few Sridevi films and had got her pitch and sing-song voice down pat. Rekha dubbed for her in Aakhri Rasta. Revathy dubbed some of her Malayalam films.
For Jaanbaaz (1986), Feroz Khan insisted that she dub her own lines. This was rare and unusual for a Sridevi film. Since it was a small part, she agreed. This set the stage for Yash Chopra’s Chandni, where she dubbed her own lines in the entire movie and then she never went back to a dubbing artiste.
When Shekhar Kapur was briefing her on the ‘I love you’ song in Mr India (1987), she would listen to him and translate his lines into Tamil, repeating them to her sister Srilatha standing next to her. Shekhar knew it was her way of processing his ideas and instructions.
While her rival Jaya Prada tried to improve her Hindi game by hiring an Urdu tutor to give her diction lessons, Sridevi did no such thing. For Nagina, she had Naaz. Nagina became the fluke blockbuster of the year, and changed the game for Sridevi, who had the last (shrill) laugh. In this film, no one cared about her language skills (or lack thereof) or her diction. People couldn’t really expect the character of a cobra woman to speak in Nirala’s Hindi or in Ghalib’s Urdu, could they?
For someone who always had a language dilemma, Sridevi had a long and illustrious career across almost three hundred Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada movies. She established that connection through her expressive face, even though her words may not always have had the perfect diction. In her climactic speech in English Vinglish, as she raises a toast at her niece’s wedding, her character Shashi says, ‘Life is a long journey ... sometimes you will feel you are less [than the other]. Try to help each other—to feel equal... [But sometimes] you have to help yourself. Nobody can help you better than you. If you do that, you will return back feeling equal ... Your life will be beautiful.’
And, in some small way, with all her linguistic imperfections, she did make many lives beautiful. Three hours at a time.
Excerpted with permission from Sridevi: Queen of Hearts by Lalita Iyer. To be published on September 28, 2018 by Westland.