Divya Bharti was a star. There was no question about it. When she died, aged nineteen, on April 5th, 1993, she had starred in six Telugu films, one Tamil film and eleven Hindi films. She had also completed two more Hindi films and one Telugu film, which were released after her passing. Six other films she was in the midst of making were reshot with other actresses.
She had no background in the movies; her parents were middle-class folk. Yet by the early 1990s, she was in enormous demand in Bombay. Hers is a story of extraordinary success and sudden tragedy. In interviews with her parents, they both say that she had no starry dreams. When the first offers for movies came from a producer who lived across the street, she only agreed because it meant she could drop out of high school: she was a terrible student. (She was sixteen when her first film, the Telugu Bobbili Raja, was released.) She also didn't care much for the Bollywood maxim about an actress's career reaching its end with marriage. She wanted to marry and so she did. In May 1992, aged eighteen, she wed producer Sajid Nadiadwala.
Divya didn't seem to put any pressure on herself or on the films she was signing. They were just an escape from her studies. That's probably why she was able to sail through them with minimal fuss and a spirited presence. She was entirely uninhibited in front of the camera, moving through the spaces her characters inhabited easily. Even when the women she played were sidelined or treated badly by the film, Divya remained dignified.
Films like Deewana and Shola Aur Shabnam, which were her biggest successes, have aged badly. As Kajal in Deewana, she is widowed soon after her marriage and moves to Bombay with her mother-in-law (Sushma Seth). In Bombay, a random biker (debutant Shah Rukh Khan) is smitten with her, follows her home, and declares himself in love. She is then coaxed by her mother-in-law to marry him, which she does (against her own inclination).
Shola Aur Shabnam is worse. In this David Dhawan action-comedy, Divya plays Divya, a young girl pursued relentlessly by Karan (Govinda), who harasses her in the name of romance. Another young man named Bali does similar things, but he is played by a pre-Sooraj Barjatya Mohnish Bahl, so he's the bad guy and Karan is the good guy. After Divya falls for Karan (in one evening), he is falsely accused of attempted rape, so he kidnaps Divya to prove his innocence. He might slap her and fling her around a bit, but all it takes is for him to beat up some men who try to get fresh with her before she's singing about her everlasting love for him.
In Geet, she starred as the famous singer Neha. Here was a role that gave her more screen time than her other films. Neha's manager Harry Saxena (Shakti Kapoor) is incensed when she refuses his advances, so he feeds her sindoor, which spoils her vocal cords and causes her downfall as a singer. She leaves for the village, where she meets a big fan of hers, Raja (a largely forgotten nineties actor named Avinash Wadhawan). They fall in love and then Raja decides to take revenge on Harry for ruining Neha's career. The film takes some hilariously anachronistic turns: in a bit straight out of Amar Akbar Anthony, Neha's singing voice comes back at a mandir when water blessed by Shiva is poured into her mouth. Divya is her angelic self through this film: she lifts scenes not with great acting but with a simplicity that pervades all her work.
Was Divya a great actor? I believe she could have been, but we only have her first year or two of work to judge her by, years that are always an actor's rawest.
It was apparent, though, that Divya was being seen by the film industry as a dependable star. In Dil Hi To Hai, for instance, she was given the meatier of the two female romantic parts, the one with greater screen time and a more interesting character. The other role went to Shilpa Shirodkar, an already established actress. Divya plays Bharti (funny how she played, in two different films, women named Divya and Bharti), a working woman and landowner who helps Harshwardhan (Jackie Shroff) find work and wins his heart. Divya is wonderful here – laughing, smiling, singing and dancing with all her heart. In the film's climax, Bharti's uncle forces her to marry the sinister Jack (Gulshan Grover). Harshwardhan and several other men are in the scene, but Divya holds her own, declaring that she is an adult who can make her own decisions and choices. (The real-life Divya said something similar to her mother when her father objected to her marriage.)
We tend to define great actors by their ability to handle complex characters, navigate drama and comedy, and so on. Divya's characters weren't particularly well-written or always central (she was content to take on an ornamental role in Jaan Se Pyara, for example). I think that if she had lived, if she hadn't fallen from her fifth-floor balcony that awful night, exactly twenty-eight years ago, she would have worked with better filmmakers and writers. And what would she be doing today? With our current content boom, many stars from the nineties are finding themselves in the most exciting phase of their careers. I find it hard to believe that forty-seven-year-old Divya Bharti wouldn't have had a renaissance. You need only look at her multiple fan accounts on social media, drawing thousands of followers, to see how fondly she is remembered.