BOOK EXCERPT

The world’s first South Indian Pathan? Why Sridevi’s accent in her Hindi films has never mattered

Edited excerpts from an upcoming biography of the actress, who would have been 55 today.

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.

‘You-ca-lip-tus.’

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.

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Chandni O Meri Chandni, Chandni (1989).

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.

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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.