Balachander had roped in his proteges Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan for the main roles for his film Moondru Mudhichu and had begun the search for a heroine. He stumped his assistants by rooting for a teenager named Sridevi. Balachander had seen the actor essay the role of Lakshmiâ€™s kid sister Irene in Julie, the Hindi version of the Malayalam film Chatakkari. The director, who had a high regard for the Malayalam filmmaker KS Sethumadhavan, who had helmed both the versions, felt that Sridevi who'd been picked by the latter should fit the bill in Moondru Mudichu.
Sridevi, who had faced the arc lights at the age of four, had no hang-ups about doing the role but skeptics wondered how the slip of a girl would be able to play Rajinikanthâ€™s step mother and the second wife of a widower (Calcutta Viswanathan) convincingly. But Balachanderâ€™s gamble paid off and Sridevi did full justice to her part.
Her film with debutant director Bharathiraaja titled Pathinaru Vayadhinile was entirely a different kettle of fish. Pathinaru Vayadhinile originally titled Mayil after the Sridevi's name in the film was a heroine oriented subject and offered the young star an opportunity to reveal her histrionic talent. Although both the scene stealers Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth were around in this film, too, it was Mayil who stole the thunder with her vivacity and joie de vivre.
As a freelancer moonlighting for a number of film magazines, I was able to approach the actor for an exclusive interview with a now defunct journal named Star & Style. Despite her glamorous appearance in Pathinaru Vayadhinile, Sridevi was quite shy and demure and I could easily discern that her impending stardom post the filmâ€™s release had not begun to rub off on her.
In those days, when visual media had not yet made an impact, interviews in film magazines were highly prized and actors through their PROs would often cajole writers to feature them in their journals. Srideviâ€™s father, Ayyappan, an advocate by profession who was managing her fledgling career at that point of time, was thrilled that his daughter would be getting some exposure in an English journal, that too from Bombay ( now Mumbai). Sridevi, however, was hardly excited, and answered all my queries in monosyllables. Though her exuberance was evident, a passion for cinema was perhaps still in an embryonic state.
Kamal Haasan, in a teary eyed tribute to the star, had recalled his meeting her when she was a teen on the sets of Moondru Mudichu and observing that she had a childlike innocence about her. It was this blithe spirit that cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra captured so vividly in his 1982 film Moondram Pirai where he cast Sridevi as an amnesia struck waif who loses her bearings after an accident and is rescued by a professor ( Kamal Haasan ). He nurses her back to health and in the process falls head over heels in love with her, only to lose her in the climax as she fails to recognise her benefactor.
This role, which both the actors reprised in the Hindi version Sadma as well, should rank as one of her finest ever. The film was critically acclaimed and also had a phenomenal run at the box-office. Rumours were rife that Sridevi would win the National Award for Best Actress for her portrayal but she missed out by the proverbial whisker. Kamal Haasan won the Best Actor award that year for the film.
Speaking to Balu after the jury had announced the awards, I could see that he too had been piqued at the jury bypassing Sridevi. Until then, Sridevi had been playing glamorous roles and her transformation in Moondram Pirai was a revelation. On interviewing her after the release of the film and the announcement of the awards, I could see that Sridevi , far from being crestfallen or depressed, had taken it in her stride and was all set to move on.
The State Governmentâ€™s Award for Best Actress was a consolation as were the plaudits that came her way. My bond with the actor who was destined to touch much greater heights in the days ahead grew when she injured her leg during the shooting of a song sequence for the film Shankarlal. Explaining the chain of events, she observed that she had to enact a slow motion scene for a duet and had landed heavily on her right leg, fracturing it in the process. Incidentally, Sridevi was an exceptionally gifted dancer who had attained great proficiency in classical dances like Bharathanatyam, so much so that dancing became her forte when she became a superstar in Bollywood.
Biweekly visits to her humble rented abode became a habit and she would be propped up in her four poster bed, busy poring over a comic book with a stereo system blaring in one corner of the room. Four teddy bears had been placed strategically in the four corners of her bed and the teenager would often glance in their direction, all the time making small talk with me. But such was her dedication to her craft that she continued to dub for the film albeit with her leg in a plaster cast.
Before Bollywood made her its own, Sridevi had a long and fruitful career in Tamil and Telugu cinema and also Malayalam, where the industy saddled her with roles that called for skimpy costumes and risquĂ© scenes. But that innocence that flashed in her eyes always remained and Sridevi unfailingly managed to pull off even such roles, emerging with her dignity intact.
My last interview with Sridevi was in 1983 on the sets of the Jeetendra starrer Himmatwala directed by Raghavendra Rao, where she was participating in a dance sequence. Child artiste Baby Shalini (who later acted in Mani Ratnamâ€™s Alaipayuthe among other films and married Tamil actor Ajith Kumar) was perched on her lap, and in between shots she would take questions from me. Her films with Jeetendra would rock the box-office and the piece de resistance in the films would be the dance sequences with Jumping Jack Jeetendra matching steps with the queen of dance, Sridevi.
A humble, genial personality, with no airs whatsoever, Sridevi exuded a lot of warmth and always endeared herself to one and all. Considering the fact that she had made a comeback to films, the industry and her legion of fans will certainly miss her.