With love to #Sridevi, from Pakistan

Her onscreen presence was a gift of god.

ByAmmara Ahmad
With love to #Sridevi, from Pakistan

I have to admit that by the time I had opened my eyes – the Ek Do Teen girl had already taken over. And I was starstruck. But Madhuri Dixit was a leading star and her films were still banned in Pakistan. Whereas Sridevi’s filmography from the 1980s, Chaalbaaz, Chandni and Nagina, along with a stockpile of some other not-so-good films were broadcast on television. And most of the times we spent our afternoons watching these films on the newly arrived Indian channels through the smuggled “Dish antenna” our father had sent to us from Balochistan.

My sister and I were of course too young to distinguish a bad film from a good one. My sister was anyway too sick from chemotherapy and often missed school – so television was her only entertainment and the family elders didn’t interfere with this activity in the afternoon hours.

Most of the times, we didn’t get the plot. The action sequences, the maudlin death scenes, the rescue of the heroine from street goons and any dramatic intricacies in the plots were missed. In fact, I have only recently watched Lamhe and realised the complications Anil Kapoor was dealing with in the second half of the film.

Speaking of Lamhe, Sridevi appears in it as the mother and later as the daughter as well. This happened in Khuda Gawah and Nagina. And, of course, she had double roles in Chaalbaaz and Banjaran as well.

My sister and I were so deeply influenced by these films that we decided one day that we cannot be twins because we are not replicas of each other. We took this case to our aunt and she explained to us that these films are works of fiction. We agreed with her but weren’t convinced. So much so that when my sister passed away, I thought she will re-emerge in some other life like Sridevi does in Banjaran or will arrive at my doorstep as a grown up like she did in Chaalbaaz.

What did we understand? We understood the humour, the passionate romance sequences and above all – the songs.

Our relationship with Sridevi was elemental – she was the vibrantly dressed (often an aesthetic disaster) who danced with her feet and her heart. There was something very earthen about her vibe. You see, Sridevi’s onscreen presence was a gift of God to my young brain.

Sridevi’s decline in the late 1990s was finally forgotten and all her competitors also retired. In the 2000s, she again became the universally acknowledged diva that she was in the 1980s. However iconic Madhuri’s rise was and however international Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s star power was – none of them were as versatile, multi-lingual or created as lasting an impression as Sridevi.

Today’s heroines operate like a management firm. They have a brand, a measured online presence, everything is pre-planned and executed with near perfection. They are flawless in every way, like Sonam Kapoor recently admitted, they have an “army” assisting them. They never seem to have any fashion faux pas, bad hair days and over-the-top attempts at looking sexy. Can any actress today pull off the goddess-like attires Sridevi wore in Himmatwala, along with those crowns? Or those hats she wore in Chandni? Or those strange curls and hairdos she ended up with on the cover of Stardust?

I think today’s fashion and on-screen presence is far too curated and classy to even appear to be organic or classy. Ultimately, Sridevi embraced this modern designer, magazine cover and chiseled body revolution. I am thankful that she re-adjusted herself and became a public figure again.

I was deeply pleased to see Madhuri and eventually Sridevi return to the big screen as middle-aged stars. Our pop cultures, on both the sides, discard women celebrities as soon as they cross 30. None of the Khans or Kumars work with their former co-stars, despite being producers of most of the films they star in. They all want the new crop, even debutantes.

But Sridevi managed to make an intelligent comeback. The younger generation related to her through recent films like English Vinglish and Mom.

I saw Mom in the cinema – the first time I saw her on the big screen – just a few months ago. The film left me speechless and sleepless in the night. Though the “justice system” Sridevi created for herself was obviously very heinous but I was smitten at the sheer power she exuded. Her character had shades of grey and so much depth. The entire film rested on her shoulders and it rested flawlessly.

She expressed her feminine side by being motherly, protective, attempting to maintain the concept of a family and looking stunning. But then there is another side – she is manipulative, untruthful, revengeful, ruthless and cunning. At the end of the hideous, explicit and violent ride – the viewer is just stunned by what is presented on the screen.

Of course, the other spectacular aspect of the film was that two of the main actors were Pakistani – Sridevi’s step-daughter and husband in the film. Both of them, Sajal Ali and Adnan Siddiqui were not present during the launch and promotion of the film. During an NDTV programme, when she was asked to give a message to her Pakistani co-stars, she was in tears and generously praised them. This was the season of spewing venom against these stars in Bollywood and Sridevi’s response was a breath of fresh air.

I will always think of Sridevi with affection – how she rolled her eyes in Hawa Hawai, a song my sister mimicked effectively, how we all danced on “Mere haathon mein nau nau choodiyan hain” and got a scolding when we danced to the sentence “kal choli silwayi aaj tang hu gayi” (we understood the meaning of this much later) and that blue saree she rocked in the song “Kate Nahi Kat Te Yeh Din Yeh Raat”, which I still plan to buy for seducing my future husband.

Over the years, I have come to realise that all was not airy-fairy in her life. There were some personal life challenges she overcame and the personal compromises she made as a superstar. But she navigated the very stressful, sexist and strenuous Bollywood of the 1980s and 1990s with success. Sridevi created a space for herself in popular culture decades before anyone had even imagined a phrase like #MeToo – and all of us, including those who competed with her, owe this to her.

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