Frederick Forsyth’s novel Odessa File, begins when the hero, Peter Miller, pulls out his car on a motorway to listen to the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. There was no story if he had not pulled out. The news of unexpected demise of people hits you when you were least expecting it and under unusual circumstances. After completing my shift on an uneventful working day in 1986, I walked out of the factory gate to go to a Paan Shop (kind of 7 eleven), and started listening to the evening news from shopkeeper’s radio. That’s when I heard about Smita Patil’s sudden death. She was very young and one of the best actresses of Indian cinema. I was a big fan of her; the news just shook me. And 30 years later, I still remember the moment when I first listened to that news.
Today, when I woke up in the morning and looked at my phone, I was surprised to see there were more than 200 WhatsApp messages (on a normal day there would be 10). It took me less than a second to see most of the messages were from friends from USA and Europe writing about passing away of Sridevi. The messages have come after mid night India time. A lazy Sunday morning has turned into a nostalgic journey about the first lady superstar of Indian Cinema.
Kumudam, a popular Tamil weekly, published a small news item in 1976. It said, Balachandar’s (a famous Tamil film director) next film will feature a new heroine, Sridevei, just 13 years old. In the movie, Moondru Mudichu (three knots) Sridevi acted as a stepmom to Rajnikanth. The movie had a lovely song featuring Kamal Hassan and Sridevi and I was amazed to see her screen presence.
Just like Kamal Hassan, Sridevi also transitioned from a child artiste to a leading actress. In the next few years she acted in some of the biggest blockbusters of Tami Films. She could be a village belle in one movie, (16 vayathinile, Kalyanaraman), or a girl next door (Meendum Kokila) or portray an actress (Priya) and she did all the roles with aplomb.
She was the dream girl of our school days; we were in awe of her and in love with her. But we were also bit jealous. That was the period when we were slogging for board exams and burning midnight oil to master Rasnick – Halliday and Sarin & Sarin to achieve the great Indian dream of passing the IIT Entrance and here she was, same as our age, but already famous and making millions. But we saw most of her movies and made our school principal unhappy one day, when we just bunked an afternoon session in school to watch Sigappu Rojakkal (Red Roses). Sridevi also was the first actress we saw in person. Her house was just opposite to her school playground and we saw her couple of times in late seventies. When I watched Kramer Vs. Kramer, I thought if the movie was copied/remade in Tamil, Kamal Hassan and Sri could easily play the roles of Dustin Hoffman & Meryl Streep.
Superb performances in Tamil Movies; 16 vayathinile (L) and Sigappu Rojakkal (R)
When I migrated to Pune in 1983 I was welcomed by ‘Himmatwala’ poster plastered all over the city. Sridevi’s 2nd attempt to enter Hindi film was a massive success and earned her the nick name Thunder Thighs. She became a very successful actress and acted with all the leading heroes of Hindi Movies. She also changed her appearance. In Tamil Nadu, her nose job (plastic surgery to correct her nose) was discussed more than her success in Hindi Movies.
I was not into watching commercial Hindi movies and thought that Hindi film industry did not offer her any great roles. She was more of a star in Hindi films. I had a firm belief that Sridevi was a combination of Sophia Loren and Meryl Streep, glamours but can provide sterling performances when asked. Of course she was not a classic beauty like Madubala but she could ooze oomph like Zeenat and also act like Smita Patil. Sadly she did not act in classic movies like Bhoomika or Manthan or even a Mirch Masala. Probably she would not have considered ‘Art Movie’ an option (low pay and lower reach); why bother about them when you could be the heartthrob of masses and make millions in the process?
Of course she acted in dozens of trash movies in Tamil as well but gave stellar performances in some good movies. ‘Sadma’ which won her an award for the best actress was originally produced in Tamil and the Hindi one was a remake.
As I mentioned, I did not watch her movies in Hindi but followed her career. Her duet with Rishi Kapoor in Chandni has more than 16 million hits in YouTue. Rishi Kapoor was the actor who wore a Jacket or Sweater for song sequence filmed in Switzerland winter or Sahara desert summer. When the movie was released, Sridevei was already on her way to super stardom.
Sridevi with Sweater King Rishi Kapoor in Chandni
She acted in few more movies and followed the other famous actresses (or was she a predecessor?) like Hema Malini, Jayaprada, Smita Patil and Shabana by marrying a much married man from the industry and faded out. Almost 15 years later, she made a remarkable comeback in ‘English Vinglish’. That probably was one of her best acting performances. She was subdued but emoted brilliantly, her longing and her desire for acceptance. My daughter Rachna was thrilled to see the performance and my wife who also was a fan of Sridevi and I talked about Sridevi’s various roles over the years. Just before the movie was released, I saw Sridevi in an airport with her daughter and she looked just as elegant after all these years.
Well the movie brought back old memories and I dusted out her famous single from Himmatwala and played it the next day. Not stopping with that, I played the song in YouTube and asked Rachna to have a look. She watched for few seconds and said, “I can never imagine that you actually enjoyed watching this crap.”
In less than a minute she rejected the movies and the superstar of my younger days. But to millions of my generation, Sridevi was a Superstar and Actress extraordinaire. RIP!