There is at least one Sridevi film for every human being to fall in love with. In her career spanning over five decades, Sridevi has perhaps played every possible role – from tomboyish to demure, from childlike to reasoned, from cultured to savage. In doing so, in building an oeuvre that has some of the finest performances Indian cinema has ever seen, Sridevi has also built an unlikely yet tremendous fan base. There is something in her oeuvre for everyone to fall in love with. Johnny, the iconic Tamil film released in 1980, is one Sridevi film I could fall in love with, over and over again. It was as much a Sridevi's film as it was Rajinikanth's.
Johnny saw some of the finest minds of Indian cinema come together. Directed by the legendary J Mahendran, the film had Rajinikanth play two strikingly contrasting roles. But it was Sridevi as Archana – a singer hopelessly in love with Johnny (a role performed by Rajinikanth) - that stole the show. Sridevi’s performance in Johnny was extraordinarily intense and subtly layered.
Archana is a singer, a popular one at that, yet she dwells in realms of solitude till she meets Johnny – an ardent fan of hers and a good-hearted conman. They fall in love with each other but Johnny withdraws to himself, unwilling to let Archana know that he is after all a conman. Archana is persistent and through the course of the movie, emerges as this woman who has an infinite capacity to love unconditionally. The sequence where she professes her love for Johnny and asks him to marry her flows mellifluously through the screen into our souls. Sridevi, throughout Johnny, is poetry in motion.
In Johnny, Sridevi was vulnerable in a very dignified way – not the kind of vulnerability a typical Tamil cinema heroine is so accustomed to. Archana’s is not the vulnerability that revels in Tamil cinema’s toxic masculinity or panders to it. It is the kind of vulnerability that ends up making the hero vulnerable. Rajinikanth in Johnny is as vulnerable as Sridevi is – sometimes even more when he is caught in a dilemma about accepting Archana’s love and her proposal for marriage. Archana, despite being vulnerable and subtle, has no such dilemma. She is lonely but she knows what she wants in her life. There is an aura of certainty about her. There is an aura of melancholy about her.
She carries this aura of melancholy with such unmistakable grace in the much celebrated Kaatril Enthan Geetham song sequence where Archana sings all alone in the heavy rains, hoping Johnny would come there. He is after all so ardent a fan.
She is not the Sridevi we would begin to see later. She does not wear anything flashy in Johnny nor dances her heart out. Yet it was through films like Johnny, just like through Sadma that Sridevi inched closer to our hearts.
Sridevis might, but Archanas don’t die. They linger in the air like a song sung by a woman with an infinite capacity to love unconditionally.