It has been two years since Sridevi passed away in a freak mishap on 24 February 2018. The other day I was watching English Vinglish (2011), the Gauri Shinde directed film that was acclaimed by critics and masses alike. In between watching her histrionics on screen, what pained me was her physical appearance.
One felt a lump in the throat in scenes where Sridevi excelled with her subdued expressions, gait, and poise. Whether it was expressing her frustration with her colleague who falls for her charms, by telling him that she was a married woman with two children or expressing appreciation for her husband’s (Adil Hussain) selection of the saree – Sridevi delivered a scintillating performance that fortuitously became her swan song.
Unfortunately, Sridevi looked a paler version of the actress who once enthralled audiences in Pathinaru Vyadinile (1976), Priya (1978) and Mr India (1986). In fact in most scenes in the film, Sridevi looks famished and sick: as if she couldn’t draw the line between maintaining weight and follow a healthy lifestyle, and starving oneself in an attempt to look slim.
It made me think – why did Sridevi shun the arc lights for 14 years (1997 to 2011) when she could have chosen to do select films like Kajol and Vidya Balan did?
What prompted her to return to films after so many years? What made her tacitly support the avaricious demands made of the producers on her behalf?
The producers of the Tamil film Puli had a hard time meeting her demands during the shoot. In fact, she even sued the producers, demanding her pound of flesh even though the film slumped at the box office. Her fees for a special appearance in the film were allegedly so high that it scared other producers to even approach her. The same Kollywood that recognized her acting skills and made her a superstar now shunned her. She got an offer to act in the iconic Bahubali but she turned it down after the makers refused to accede to her demand for astronomical fees.
There were also reports in the media about how Sridevi went berserk shopping while she was shooting in the US for English Vinglish. The filmmakers were magnanimously tight-lipped about this, considering the film raked in decent profits at the box office.
A film magazine called Show Time was launched way back in 1984 which had Sridevi as the cover girl on its inaugural issue. One of the articles mentioned that Sridevi’s fees per film were Rs14 lakh during those days.
Sridevi was steadily climbing the ladder of success as her films (that released in quick succession) proved to be blockbusters. She had a permanent suite in a five-star hotel in Mumbai. Her movies like Himmatwaala, Justice Chowdhury, Mawali, Nagina, Chandni became huge successes. The audiences went berserk with her beauty and acting competence, until her mannerisms became monotonous beyond a point.
Her pairing with Amitabh in Inquilab (1984) was fresh but the movie was a damp squib. Later Sridevi did movies like Akhri Raasta (directed by K Bhagyaraj) and Khuda Gawah with Amitabh and these became successful and iconic films. So enamoured was Bollywood with Sridevi that Dharmendra called her the Marilyn Monroe of India and compared her joi-de-vivre with Mumtaz, his co-star in the 70s.
The people who managed Sridevi's dates angered Padmalaya Films when they approached her for a new film. This company had given Sridevi her big break in Hindi films (Himmatwala, 1983) after a disastrous debut in Solva Sawan (1977).
The film, a remake of Bharati Raaja's legendary Tamil film Pathinaru Vayadinile had Amol Palekar playing the lead. Palekar was unconvincing as a village bumpkin, unable to evoke the sympathy that Kamal Haasan had managed to gather in the original.
Embittered and furious, Padmalaya Films cast another upcoming South Indian actress Radha in their Kamyaab that starred Shabana Azmi and Jeetendra – a regular pair in Hindi films made down South. That the movie tanked at the box office is another story. Padmalaya Films had to eat a humble pie and Sridevi had the last laugh.
Her rumoured liaison with Mithun Chakraborty did nothing to dent her image and popularity. Her so-called rivalry with her contemporary Jayaprada kept both of them in the news. She allegedly made her displeasure clear while acting with Jackie Shroff. Her only film with Sanjay Dutt (Gumrah) was widely appreciated. Shroff’s close friend designer Anna Singh was so miffed with Sri’s high-handedness that she claimed that she threw a chappal at her!
Her pairing with Anil Kapoor that began in Mr. India (1987) continued in many films until her last film Judai (1997), before she took a sabbatical to take care of her first-born Jhanvi. Her mother Rajeswari, who was her pillar of support right from her days as a child actor, had passed away earlier. Sridevi was then like a babe lost in the woods. Her troubled relationship with her younger sister Srilatha added to her unhappiness.
Sridevi’s altercations with film producer Sattee Shourie in later years became the grist of gossip mills. There were reports that her mother had approached tennis player Vijay Amirtharaj with a matrimonial proposal earlier. But the deal fell through. By the time Sridevi entered into a forced matrimonial bliss with the much-married Boney Kapoor (who called himself a Bollywood producer) she was already 36 years old.
A lot of questions remain unanswered. Whatever happened to all the money that Sridevi earned during her prime? Unconfirmed reports claim that her parents dipped into their daughter’s fortunes to give loans to their relatives at high-interest rates. Having lost the opportunity to go to school, Sridevi did not have sufficient knowledge or expertise to invest her hard-earned wealth well.
(Sridevi shared this photo on Twitter with her father, mother & sister on 18 June 2013 on Father’s Day)
Unlike Jayalalitha, Sridevi never expressed her anguish in public about a childhood that she lost as she began acting in films right from the age of four years. Sridevi had trouble speaking fluently in English and her interviews in the media appear doctored. Residents of Andheri in Mumbai often saw Sridevi shopping in retail stores all by herself without anyone even noticing her or acknowledging her presence.
Acting was the only profession that Sridevi knew and excelled in. She could have chosen scripts carefully, demanded compensation commensurate with market forces and could have come to terms with the fact that age was no longer on her side. Rather than looking at artificial ways of enhancing her beauty, how wonderful it would have been had Sridevi chosen to age gracefully!