In an interview with Cine Blitz in 1985, Sridevi had said: ‘I dream a lot, every night in fact. Most of the time I dream of horrible things like ghosts, phantoms and snakes. People tell me that dreaming of snakes means that you have a lot of enemies.’
Given that she was the numero uno star, there were perhaps foes aplenty. But the snakes could have well been a premonition—an omen for a film that would catapult her to another dizzying peak. Filmmaker Harmesh Malhotra was running around with a script titled Nagina, revolving around the myth of an ichhadhari (shapeshifting) serpent. He narrated it first to Jaya Prada, but she rejected it outright. A distraught Malhotra now rang up Sridevi, who was down with high fever. One look at the script and she told her mother that she was doing the film. Perhaps this was the opportunity she was waiting for, the chance to prove that she could carry a film solo. In an interaction with Raj Chengappa in 1987, Rajeshwari concurred: ‘It was her first real heroine-oriented Hindi film and I knew she would play it superbly. So, I cancelled some other dance and fight movies and told her to concentrate on Nagina.’
Sridevi plays the shapeshifting Rajni who enters the life of Raj, played by Rishi Kapoor. Her mission is covert and standing in her way is tantrik Bhaironath, played by Amrish Puri, who is lusting after the fabled mani. While it sounds outrageous on paper, Sridevi’s sorcery transforms it into a fascinating superhero saga. Watch her expressions in that hospital sequence as she discovers the cobra sent by Bhaironath. Watch how she confronts the tantrik in the next scene. Standing up to a thespian like Amrish Puri was no joke, and Sridevi does it with panache. She is equally spellbinding in the midnight scene where she morphs into her true self. While the Gothic setting and red glow create the ambience, it is the muted ecstasy on Rajni’s face, as she discards the human form, that invokes awe. Watch how she reacts to the strains of the tantrik’s been—her lids drooping, her eyes blue. This was the first time Sridevi experimented with contact lenses, and it would soon become a fad. Although the blue eyes intensified Rajni’s aura, Saroj Khan reveals that the lenses would often turn her eyes blood red and yet she would keep filming without complain.
The actress also gets to display various shades in the chartbusting songs of Nagina. If she is arousing in ‘Balma’, she is captivating in ‘Aaj Kal Yaad Kuchh’. She also turns into somewhat of an optical illusion in ‘Bhooli Bisri Ek Kahani’. Appearing and disappearing through swirling fog, she almost becomes an apparition inhabiting those ruins. But Nagina saves her best for the last. There have been snake dances galore in Hindi cinema but few measure up to the utter hysteria generated by ‘Main Teri Dushman’. Sung by Lata Mangeshkar, this climactic faceoff between Rajni and Bhaironath is a Michelin star three-course meal. Entrée starts with pure instrumental. The hypnotic tune of the been pinning Rajni down like a moth to a cardboard sheet. Animated to her very core, she almost turns reptilian as she rolls on her bed. The actress spoke about this sequence in a 1992 chat with Filmfare: ‘I had to convey the feeling that I was helpless, that I was imprisoned by the strains of the music. To do this without speaking a single line of dialogue was a challenge. So, I just went along with the music and let my body do the talking.’
Main course arrives once Rajni erupts into dance before Bhaironath. Saroj creates one nuance after another, and Sridevi executes them with flourish. Watch those intricate hand movements, that ramrod posture, that undulating body. Watch how she writhes and coils on the floor. Sridevi invokes an animal spirit to deliver a physical marvel of a performance that is both eerie and erotic. If her serpentine moves are mesmerizing, her expressions are pure venom. Towards the end, the camera cuts to a close-up. The actress arches her eyebrows. Her eyes glare as if darting poison from the blue lenses, and history was made. Saroj says: ‘I gave her a lot of knee movements as that is how a snake raises itself up on the ground. There are moments in the song that she has performed almost like a blind person because the lenses were causing problems, and yet her expressions are beyond perfect.’
This is especially true of the dessert which goes instrumental again. The tempo here is more frenzied, the choreography more visceral. Surrounded by humans, the snake-woman lashes out. A force of nature refusing to be hunted, she takes the drama to a violent crescendo of raudra rasa.
Nagina created history at the ticket windows by becoming the biggest blockbuster of 1986, its profit ratio overtaking Subhash Ghai’s Karma. So massive was the reaction that Malhotra immediately announced a sequel. This was unheard of in those days when even Bachchan’s directors hardly dared to show such confidence in their hero. The sequel titled Nigahen (1989) made Sridevi the second Bollywood actress after Fearless Nadia to have her very own film franchise. Nagina also spawned instant me-too films such as Rekha’s Sheshnaag (1990) and Meenakshi Seshadri’s Nache Nagin Gali Gali (1989), but none of these could hold a candle to Sridevi’s act.
But the superstar who was thundering before the camera was still exceedingly shy behind it. Still more comfortable spouting dialogues than pleasantries. Almost until halfway through the shooting of Nagina, Sridevi had not uttered a single word to Rishi. The actor recalls the moment when she finally broke that silence: ‘We were doing a scene where we were in close proximity with each other and suddenly the shoot was halted as the camera ran out of film magazine. We both kept standing in that position with the lights on and the whole crew around. There was this awkward silence between us as they kept loading the new magazine. Suddenly Sridevi looked at me and said in a soft voice, “I have seen your Khel Khel Mein four times”. I was flustered for a moment and replied, ‘Thank you. You dance very well.’ That was the only conversation I had with her during Nagina.’
Excerpted with permission from Sridevi The Eternal Screen Goddess, Satyarth Nayak, Penguin Random House India.