It has been almost a year since Sridevi died in Dubai. The uncertain circumstances of the 54-year-old movie star’s sudden demise on February 24, 2018, ensured her immediate entry into the roster of tragic Indian film heroines – placing her alongside actresses like Meena Kumari and Savitri who had an outsized impact on popular culture but were unable to enjoy the rewards of their legacies.

As initial reports that Sridevi had died of a cardiac arrest were amended to death by drowning in a bathtub (with the suggestion of alcohol imbibed in between), the actress’s filmography, which spanned five languages, was scruntinised for hints of emotional attrition. But analysts of subconscious trauma will have a tough time with Sridevi. Her mask rarely slipped, and her films do not easily lend themselves to dissection.

Could Moondram Pirai yield some clues? The psychosexual drama explores the relationship between a man and a woman who has regressed into childhood. The baby-faced actress plays the woman in peril, defenceless against the dangers that surround her and completely dependent on a man for food, clothing, shelter and protection.

Moondram Pirai was a response to another tragedy – the suicide of director Balu Mahendra’s young wife Shoba. One of Southern cinema’s most gifted actresses, Shoba killed herself on May 1, 1980, in her Chennai apartment. She had been married for two years to the vastly older Mahendra, who had directed her in his Kannada film Kokila in 1977. She was 18 at the time of her death (some reports peg her age at 19). Mahendra was 41, and had a son from a previous marriage.

Mahendra is said to have made Moondram Pirai in 1982 as a way of coping with Shoba’s sudden disappearance from his life. The movie was remade a year later in Hindi as Sadma with minor alterations and changes in the cast. Both films are a tribute to the skills of the leads, played by Sridevi and Kamal Haasan, as well as Mahendra’s ability to project artistic concerns onto a tawdry subject.

Sridevi in Moondram Pirai (1982). Courtesy Sathyajyothi Films.

As tributes to forever-love go, Moondram Pirai is as disturbing as it is moving. Cheenu (Haasan) first meets Viji (Sridevi) in a brothel. She has been lured there from a hospital where she is recovering from an accident that has altered her behaviour. Viji has become her seven-year-old self with childish mannerisms, a tinny voice and the bodily movements associated with the not-yet-formed. Yet, she seems to understand that she is in a version of hell, and her plight tugs at Cheenu’s heart-strings.

Cheenu takes Viji away from the brothel to a town in the Nilgiris, where he works as a school teacher. (The question of consent, naturally, doesn’t arise because of Viji’s condition.) A strange love develops, and Mahendra slips in the melancholic Ilaiyaraaja song Poongatru Puthiraanathu (Ae Zindagi Gale Laga Le in Hindi) to measure the depth of feelings that have evolved between provider and the provided.

Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in Moondram Pirai (1982). Courtesy Sathyajyothi Films.

Viji is the ideal infantilised girlfriend and the child-woman of the Indian male fantasy. She needs to be fed and patted to sleep like the average tot, and throws tantrums when Cheenu fails to do her bidding. (Another sonic marker of the relationship is the lullaby-like Kanne Kalaimaane.) Cheenu often makes up by playacting with Viji, and his impersonation of a monkey has a tragic echo in the climax. A cured Viji loses all memory of her regression and is unable to recognise Cheenu. She dismisses his simian-like leaps and face-pulling as the actions of a madman.

Kamal Haasan in the climax of Sadma (1983), the Hindi-language version of Moondram Pirai. Courtesy Rupam Chitra.

The closing sequence was Haasan’s suggestion. Mahendra wanted a more prosaic conclusion to this winter of unlikely love, but Haasan told in an interview after Mahendra’s death in 2014 that he wanted to ratchet up the emotion. “The railway platform finale was partly my idea,” Haasan said in the interview. “Balu wanted a restrained finale where she drove off quietly. He was very minimalist in his approach.”

There is no minimalism in view, however, in Silk Smitha’s performance in both films as the permanently open-mouthed and underclothed wife of the headmaster of the school at which the protagonist teaches. Ironically, Smitha also joined the club of tragic actresses by dying from an apparent suicide in 1996 at the age of 33. She had played bosom-heaving characters throughout her career, and was one of the most objectified women on the Indian screen.

In Moondram Pirai and Sadma, Silk Smitha is the whore to Sridevi’s Madonna. Viji’s innocence notwithstanding, thoughts of sex cling to Cheenu like the Nilgiris chill. Despite his prolonged physical contact with Viji and fantasies about her in her normal state, a sexual relationship is out of question. Cheenu displaces his feelings by allowing himself to become the object of desire of Smitha’s character.

Silk Smitha in Moondram Pirai (1982). Courtesy Sathyajyothi Films.

In this paradise, with its Adam and Eve who are trying to create a sin-free world, the forbidden fruit is proffered by Silk Smitha. She is much younger than her husband, and despite his best efforts, is sexually unfulfilled. She fixes her eye on Cheenu, telling him that he has a “great physique”. Despite its U-rating, Moondram Pirai has some racy scenes between Haasan and Smitha, including a fantasy song in which Smitha and Haasan drape themselves around each other.

The tenderness with which Mahendra treats Sridevi vanishes when it comes to Smitha. Her voluptuous body is mercilessly on display, as well as close-ups of her glistening and parted lips. Her dubbed voice is an orgasmic purr.

Viji’s near-rape is another pointer to the dangers that lurk in this simulated Eden. When Viji snaps out of her child-like state, she draws the curtain on Cheenu’s fantasy. The movie allows Cheenu his martyrdom. Like so many Tamil film heroes driven to madness by the women in their lives, Cheenu is destroyed at the end of the encounter.

Kamal Haasan in Sadma (1983), the Hindi-language version of Moondram Pirai. Courtesy Rupam Chitra.

Moondram Pirai has been hailed as one of Kamal Haasan’s finest films. All these years later, Cheenu remains the tragedy’s most compelling character, and Haasan’s performance is unimpeachable. But Sridevi’s portrayal of Viji, which capitalises on her cherubic face and ability to project virginal innocence, was by no means less challenging. Sridevi subsumes herself into Viji and finds the grace notes in the perversity that underlines the plot. It is never possible to take Viji seriously, but it is equally impossible to ignore the actress behind the character.

Sridevi’s celebrated professionalism and rigour helped her inhabit an array of roles, from intrepid journalist in Mr India to shape-shifting snake-woman in Nagina and ripe-for-taming shrew in Himmatwala to black-robed vigilante in Sherni. In her double role in Pankaj Parashar’s Chaalbaaz, Sridevi writhed on the floor in submission as well as wielded the whip.

If Moondram Pirai told us anything about Sridevi, it was that she could play any character to the best of her abilities. The movie actually reveals much more about the fervid imagination of its filmmaker, who imagined his lost love as a child in need of coddling. Sridevi kept the personal and the professional apart throughout her career. Not so her directors.