Rise of the female superstar: How Sridevi delivered early blows to the glass ceiling

Sridevi was a trailblazer for the women actors in Indian film industries.
Rise of the female superstar: How Sridevi delivered early blows to the glass ceiling
Rise of the female superstar: How Sridevi delivered early blows to the glass ceiling
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Moondram Pirai (1982) was a battle between two titans – it was a rare cinematic moment when two brilliant actors stood on par with each other in every single frame. Though in the end, Kamal Haasan did cartwheel his way to winning several awards, Sridevi’s Viji, as someone who mentally regresses to the state of a child, was a revelation. It was a performance a lesser actor would have faltered in and turned into a caricature. Even today, it remains an unmatched performance.

Sridevi was a pathbreaker in many ways. A child actor starting at the age of 4, who appeared in 21 films before making her debut as an adult in Moondru Mudichu, she managed to recreate the same success as an adult. The actor from south India who successfully bridged the geographic gap (there were a few before and after her, but none could refashion the aura she had), battled an unfamiliar language, had roles written for her, beautifully balanced glamour with meaty roles, and was the longest running lady superstar in Bollywood. Some of her biggest blockbusters rode solely on her screen presence – Chaalbaaz, Chandni, Mr India, Nagina. She delivered some early blows to the Bollywood glass ceiling and inspired generations of female actors to push the envelope and aim for superstardom.

She has to her credit over 300 films in various languages – 49 in Tamil, 26 in Malayalam, 83 in Telugu, 6 in Kannada and 72 in Hindi. She starred opposite all the leading heroes (NTR, Sivaji Ganesan, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Amitabh Bachchan, Nagarjuna), commanded a fee on par with them, and consistently delivered hits in all the languages.

In Tamil, she was a regular in the films of K Balachander, Bharathi Raja and Y Mahendra. They only offered her author-backed roles and she was only in her early 20s. In 16 Vayathiniley, she was a young girl torn between two men, in Meendum Kokila she was a traditional wife struggling to save her husband from the clutches of an actor. Sridevi effortlessly slipped into characters that belied her age, in all their complexity – in Sigappu Rojakkal she was a woman who discovered her husband’s psychopathic ways post marriage, while Priya had her playing a movie star who seeks a way out from her exploitative uncle.

Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, and Sridevi – the formidable trio who grew together in Tamil cinema much before they took separate routes towards superstardom. And ironically, some of her best performances came during that period. “I liked Sridevi when she was in Tamil. She was acting then,” director Mani Ratnam was quoted saying in a 90s issue of Filmfare magazine. Sridevi repeated her Tamil film graph in Telugu as well. In fact, she has done the maximum number of films in her mother tongue.

Sridevi was already a superstar when she stepped into Bollywood. In fact, Sanjay Dutt once said in an interview during the making of Gumraah that he was a fan of Sridevi and met her when she was shooting for a south Indian film. “She was petrified on seeing my eagerness and refused to shake hands with me.”

Though she made her Hindi debut in Solva Saawan (1979) it was Himmatwala, opposite Jeetendra, where she played the rich spoilt miss that catapulted her into instant stardom in Hindi cinema, though not primarily for her acting. Despite starring in many unimpressive films with Jeetendra (which were also south Indian productions) and Jayaprada, it required the Hindi remake of her own Moondram PiraiSadma – to get the industry to take notice of her acting skills.

Then came the blockbuster Nagina (1986) where she played an ‘ichadhari naagin’ or a shapeshifting woman and Sridevi had truly arrived, reinstating another big Sridevi theory – her ability to bring sanity and credibility to the most bizarre, far-fetched roles in equally mind-boggling films.

Mr India a year later was a total package – an instance when she stole the thunder from the leading man, prompting the audience to rename the film as 'Miss India'. As a journalist (again a rare depiction for a female actor during that time), the actor brought to the table her impeccable comic timing (the Charlie Chaplin act remains matchless even today), incredible screen presence, and glamour. “I think for an actor you have to be shameless, uninhibited and if it's comedy, you have to raise it a few notches. This is a rarity, especially from a female actor. There is nothing Sridevi cannot do. After this performance, she could have just packed her bags and people would still remember her for centuries,” admitted Vidya Balan during the JIO Movie Mami Mela.

Her Bollywood journey, save for the fag-end, remained consistently successful. Post Mr India, she was part of movies that celebrated the whole Sridevi package – dance, glamour, acting and her sheer screen presence. Sridevi seemed to be adept at every kind of emoting, like she adapted herself to the requirements of typical mainstream Hindi cinema – the loud exaggerated presence, her mad giggles, the subtle, the nuanced expressions, probably the reason why Kamal Haasan called her an “excellent bag of tricks.” 

Chaalbaaz, a remake of Seetha aur Geetha, also boasted of that rare feminist character in the headstrong Manju. A film where Rajinikanth and Sunny Deol were relegated to supporting roles. Similarly, Chandni, Lamhe (a film ahead of its time) were films that had strong, quirky, complex female characters. During the making of Lamhe, Sridevi’s father passed away, and yet she rejoined the shoot the day after his funeral and had to shoot a comic scene.

In Khuda Gawah, she got equal importance as Amitabh Bachchan, often eclipsing him with her mere presence. Difficult to think of any other actor who could have pulled off that introductory scene with Bachchan with so much panache.

In Gumraah, director Mahesh Bhatt recalls how he let her improvise for a scene where she sees her mother dead. "Sri just went numb and then slowly there is an emotional outburst. It's an astonishing transformation, to watch such a silent, shy person off screen turn into something else on screen."

Sridevi was one actor who gave a new interpretation to the word 'sex appeal', much before the 'Rangeela's and 'Choli Ke Peechey's hit the box office. For the ‘Kaatey Na Katey’ song, the sari is wrapped snugly around her and yet there isn’t a more sensuous sight than the actress dancing in the rain. Or the utter mischief she brings to an otherwise sexy number in Chaalbaaz – 'Na janey kahan se’.

Yet her talent remained largely untapped in Bollywood – she found herself starring in too many flamboyant costume dramas that simply explored her glamorous side. Oddly enough, she could pull it off – those elaborate feather hairdos, clothes made of tree-barks, those ridiculous flip-flops, atrocious shades of lipsticks, and dance to inane songs and choreography without batting an eyelid. “I think Sridevi has still not got the roles showcasing her talents,” said Jaya Bachchan.

A lot has been said about Madhuri Dixit toppling Sridevi’s throne, but the fact remains that it was Sridevi who paved the way for other female actors to make a mark in the essentially male dominated industry. She remained the trailblazer.

After Judaai (1997), she took a break for marriage and motherhood. And exactly 15 years later, she made her comeback with a character tailor-made for her. The docile, laddu making entrepreneur in English Vinglish. Suddenly it seemed like she never went anywhere – it was a kind of silent acting, which didn’t require much dialogue or explanations. “It’s marvellously direct – and it’s there in the scene where her insensitive husband declares in front of family that his wife was born to cook. Her reaction which seems to say, “Is there no end to this humiliation? I mean, I’m standing right here, right in front of you!” – is enclosed in the gentlest of quotation marks. Every single person in the audience knows what that face is thinking, what it’s saying without saying. This is a beautiful instance of silent-film acting, and it doesn’t need an intertitle,” wrote Baradwaj Rangan, film critic. Even her last film Mom was praised only for her presence.

The 54-year-old Sridevi will remain the biggest female icon in Indian cinema – a woman who grew up in cinema, without godfathers, without mentors, unconsciously pushing patriarchy into a corner, braving male domination, reigning supreme for over three decades and inspiring generations of female actors to dream big.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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