Time was when Sridevi was the busiest actress in films of all the four major South Indian languages – Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. A journalist asked Ayyappan, her father, “What about your second daughter Srilatha?” Ayyapan, who quit his legal profession to take care of his star daughter’s finances, fumed, “Is it not enough that one daughter’s life has already been spoilt by cinema?”
Luckily for Mr Ayyappan, the equally beautiful Srilatha, had no interest whatsoever in cinema. After working for a few years as her sister’s unofficial secretary, she chose to elope with her neighbour Sanjay Ramaswamy. Sanjay belonged to a family of politicians-lawyers and his father who was a judge was also in the eye of a storm. Sanjay’s political loyalties kept changing.
Sridevi’s family was gracious enough to host a reception for Srilatha’s wedding sometime in 1989. Sridevi was shooting for Guru Dev along with Rishi Kapoor then. Vinod Mehra was directing the movie. A year later, Mehra, a chain smoker, known for his multiple marriages, succumbed to a massive heart attack. When the movie was finally released, it bit the dust. Mehra’s last wife Kiran then went abroad along with a little-known actor called Deepak Saraf and her two children. Reportedly she married Saraf but whether the marriage lasted is not known.
In 1983 Sridevi met Mithun Chakraborty as the shooting for Jaag Uta Insan began. Bollywood rumour mills insisted that while shooting for the movie, Sridevi fell forMithun’s charms and got married to him. Till today it is not known whether this is the truth or mere speculation. But after starring in a couple of movies, Sridevi and Mithun parted ways and eventually completely lost touch. Mithun Quit films and launched into a second career as a hotelier with Monarch Hotel in Ooty.
Thus, Sridevi continued to remain the golden goose for her family. Having entered Tamil cinema at the young age of 6 years, Sridevi never had the time to go to school. It took her many years to even sign a cheque. Both her parents were previously married. Her mother Rajeshwari was from Tirupathi and she had met Mr Ayyappan, a lawyer based in Sivakasi, to seek his help to divorce her husband. Rajeswari had a daughter Suryakala from her first marriage.
Ayyapan was a much married man with two sons. He persuaded his first wife to accept Rajeswari and soon the couple began their life together in Chennai. Years later, Rajeswari’s star daughter would follow in her mother’s footsteps by marrying a much married man.
Sridevi’s foray as a leading heroine began in Tamil cinema at the age of 13 when she signed K Balachander’s Moonru Mudichu (1976). From 1976 until 1983, she reigned as the queen in Kollywood. No other actress could match her acting talent or stardom or the adulation she commanded. Most of her Tamil movies were with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. One feels sorry for the late actress when one reads that she was so busy shooting in all the four languages that she never had any time to introspect. She simply followed her mother’s instructions and accepted films left, right and centre.
In Tamil movies, Sridevi was often cast as the girl-next-door; however, in the early 80s, she began accepting glamorous roles in movies like Priya, Aduttha Varisu, Ranuva Veeran, Johnny and Vazhve Maayam. So scared was Rekha of Sridevi that after signing a movie Meendum Kokila that starred Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, Rekha walked out. Reportedly, Rekha wanted the role that Sridevi reprised and the director put his foot down. Rekha never did any Tamil movie again.
Bharati Raja cast her as a nubile village girl in 16 vayadinilie. The movie became a rage. Kamal Haasan played a village bumpkin. Rajinikanth played the villain – Parattai. As a simple village girl who falls prey to the lascivious charms of a city-bred young man, Sridevi lived the role of Mayilu (the name of the character that she portrayed in the movie). As she sang “Sendoora poove Chillenra Katre” she set heartthrobs racing.
With Bharati Raja, she also did Sigappu Rojakkal opposite Kamal Haasan as a psychopathic killer. Later when the movie was remade in Hindi as Red Rose Rajesh Khanna could simply not match up to Kamal Haasan’s acting competence in the original. Poonam Dhillon, the glamour doll of Bollywood, who reprised Sridevi’s role in the Tamil original was a disaster. Later, Dhillon and Sridevi acted together in Karma (1986) directed by Subhash Ghai. No prizes for guessing who stole the show. Dhillon later made a cameo in Judaai (1997) Sridevi’s last movie before she called it a day.
Sridevi’s last movie with K Balanchander was Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu in 1980. By then Sridevi had become an eminent star. Her nose surgery had become the talk of Kollywood. 16 vayadinile was made in Hindi but the movie bombed at the box office. Amol Palekar was miscast as the village bumpkin in Solva Sawan (1979). But four years later, Sridevi was back in Bollywood with a vengeance. Cavorting with Jeetendra in a bikini, she added life to Himmatwala which was a blatantly mediocre film. That Jeetendra was dead wood when it came to acting capabilities is no secret. Thanks to Sridevi, Jeetendra’s films with her became huge successes at the box office. As lady luck favoured him, Jeetendra intelligently invested the crores of rupees he had earned to turn to television serials years later. But poor Sridevi’s lakhs were splurged by her family in ill-advised investments. Way back in 1985, Sridevi was demanding Rs25 lakh per film. So it was a shock to know that Sridevi’s finances were in a bad shape.
By the time Chandni (1989) was released, Sridevi had become the top actress in Bollywood. Dharmendra called her “the Marilyn Monroe of India”. She made the entire nation watch her antics in Mr India with awe. Loosely inspired by the 1968 hit Brahmachari, Mr India was a big success at the box office. Who can ever forget “Hawa Hawai” or “Mogambo Khush Hua”? The only similarity between Brahmachari and Mr India was the fact that in both films, the leading man was running an orphanage with meagre means. Satish Kaushik as “Calendar”, Sridevi as “Seema” the journalist looking out for a scoop and falling for the invisible man’s charms and Annu Kapoor as the stupid editor provided ample support to Mr India. Movies like Nagina, Akhri Rasta, Khuda Gawah and Chalbaz consolidated her position. Then in the early 90s Sridevi started repeating herself in film after film. Despite a good performance, Army (1995) flopped at the box office. A guest appearance by Shah Rukh Khan was the only added attraction.
Prior to entering Bollywood, Sridevi who had earlier acted in tearjerkers like Gayatri, Kavari Maan and Sayndhadaama Sayndhadu in Kollywood delivered a heart-rending performance in Moonram Pirai (later made as Sadma). The movie was shot in Ooty. Moonram Pirai was a classic that did not do too well at the box office – it was a film for the classes and not the masses. The film’s tragic ending did not go down too well with audiences. Silk Smitha’s bold dances bordering on vulgarity could not salvage Moonram Pirai.
With her parents passing away in quick succession, all the hard earned money going down the drain, an extravagant lifestyle, a two-decade-old court battle with her own younger sister Srilatha, her fetish to appear young forever, the hunger suppressing pills and never-ending cosmetic surgeries - Sridevi’s life was indeed a roller coaster ride. Pregnancy before marriage, getting attacked by her husband’s mother-in-law Sattee Shourie, a hush-hush marriage with the almost bankrupt Boney Kapoor, bounced cheques….
Sridevi’s life was full of challenges, full of ups and downs. A classic example of how the life of an actress can go horribly wrong without adequate family support. It is also a rejoinder to the fact that education is very important for a girl child and parents should never push their children to pursue a career in films at the cost of education.
One can only shed a few tears for this talented actress. May her soul rest in peace and protect her children from the wicked ways of Bollywood…
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80’s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)