K.S. Prakash Rao took Bapayya under his wing when his father died. His son K. Raghavendra Rao was also learning the ropes under him, assisting him on various movies like the one we are going to talk about now: Naa Thammudu (1971).
On a popular TV show called Soundaryalahari, K. Raghavendra Rao described how he and Sridevi’s family shared a cordial relationship. They lived on the same street in Chennai and he used to visit them often. Her family used to solicit and factor in his advice about her career decisions. He was witness to her unrelenting work routine: taking short naps in between shifts and being completely alert when the shot was ready again. He recalled one such day, when she was blissfully asleep and he picked her in his arms and took her to the shoot of Naa Thammudu. Her mother offered to come along, but he took full responsibility and assured her that he’ll bring her back safe and sound. In a few hours, as we will see, he was going to regret this.
Naa Thammudu is the story of two brothers. The elder, a widower, endures all kind of sacrifices to make sure his brother Chandra (played by Sobhan Babu) becomes a doctor. But what makes all the pain seem bearable is the angelic presence of little Shanthi (played by Sridevi), Chandra’s niece and the light of their lives. By this time, it is obvious that she was turning into something of a crowd-puller. The film could have done away with Shanthi’s character, but it seems as though she was injected into the film to make use of Sridevi’s histrionics. She was given ample screen space and plenty to do. There is a song sequence—of 5 minutes and 43 seconds—in which she briefly dresses up as Jawaharlal Nehru and pays tribute to the leader during Children’s Day celebrations at her school. There’s a point in the film where she tries to pull a fast one on her uncle by dressing up as a beggar. In another, she prances about in a sari. She does all of this with unbelievable charm.
About 75 per cent into the film, there was a scene where Sridevi had to run through the street to reach her uncle. The scene was shot at Mount Road, Chennai. The director, K.S., held a white kerchief aflutter. He instructed her to run to the other side of the road as soon as he gave the signal. Even at that age, Sridevi was a director’s actor. She followed instructions faithfully and precisely. K.S. signalled with the kerchief. Aiming for the other side, she sprinted as fast as she could across the busy street.
Shootings those days were not elaborate affairs as they are today. Safety measures were not such a big deal back then but the crew did try to ensure that the actors, especially children, were safe. They had scanned the road and K.S. Prakash waved only when they were sure it was clear. The whole thing happened within seconds. When she was halfway across the road, a speeding Ambassador car zoomed into the shot. Everyone gasped. At the speed of light, the black beast of a car shoved into the running child. Her tiny eight-year-old frame was tossed across by the impact. There was pandemonium. Crew members ran to her. She was knocked out cold.
Raghavendra Rao’s heart sank. He had promised Rajeswari that he would bring Sridevi back home, safe and sound. He said that he pictured himself getting taken away by the cops. The unit converged on him. It was as if he had just committed a crime. A small crowd had started gathering around them. Raghavendra was sure that he would be beaten up, or worse. But mercifully, Sridevi came around. The car had brushed against her right leg. It was not a serious injury. Had she run just a second later or slower, the car would have run her over and a promising career would have been cut short rather tragically. But all was well. He heaved a sigh of relief. But he was reminded of what he had told her mother while leaving. All he could think of now was to get her home as swiftly as possible. Raghavendra picked the child up in his arms and didn’t stop running till he reached Sridevi’s house. He had a promise to keep.
Much like the now famous Coolie incident, this mishap found its way into the movie. The only distinction being that in this case, the scene is not highlighted. You have to look for it. And when you do, you are sure to gasp. I promise."
Excerpt from "Sridevi : The South Years" (Rupa Publications India, ₹395) by Amborish Roychoudhury