Rajan Naidu was on stage with his wife and child, weeping softly, recounting a moment he once shared with his idol, Sridevi.
This was September 2019 and he was at the book launch of With Love To Sridevi, at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai. The book was compiled and edited by Syed Arif and Inderjit Nagi. Naidu was one of the contributors.
Naidu had first met Sridevi at a special screening of English Vinglish when his wife was 3 months pregnant. When Naidu told Sridevi that he wished for a daughter so he could name the child after her, she shushed him, telling him not to be crazy. She also told him to come visit her when the child was born. He wrote to her after his child’s birth, (he was disgruntled that it was a boy, not a girl) and she invited his family home. She held the child and named him Daivik. But because of the South Indian hangover on her accent, Naidu heard it as Devik, happy that part of Sridevi’s name found its way into his son’s. Later when he read the card with the gift Sridevi gave him, he realized his mistake.
Naidu’s story is one of many in With Love To Sridevi (the cover image is the cover designed by Arif and Nagi), a coffee-table book that is a collection of essays, poems, and artwork from Sridevi fans across the country, including one from Japan. Saniya Shaikh who curated the event called the book a “collaborative legacy-making by fans of an idol who has given so much.” It’s not about Sridevi’s life, but her legacy.
I guess this is one way to memorialize her; to not necessarily speak of her, but how people seek solace from her.
Arif, a gay man, spoke about how the queer community began to identify with her. She cultivated the reputation of a Queer icon, with her shapeshifting, androgynous, powerful characters upturning gender roles. After all, she did begin her career as a four year old playing male gods. It all started with drag. (Her championing of homosexual love in English Vinglish was the mere capstone on a legacy of roles endorsing threesomes and homoerotic tracks of her singing ‘Lage Mujhe Sundar Har Ladki’)
Her filmography fed her fandom that over the years deepened to create the mythology around her; she could do no wrong. Many of the biographies commissioned post her death were also interested in this- her filmography and her mythology. Understandably, none of them sparkle or have the candour of a literary, unbiased profile. But nevertheless, they provide a sanitized outline within which we can discover her magic.
The Sridevi Biography
Act III: Deccan Diva of Penguin’s biography, Sridevi The Eternal Screen Goddess (thankfully, they changed it from the earlier title Sridevi Girl Woman Superstar) written by Satyarth Nayak begins with this sweet anecdote.
“At the dawn of the 1980s, small ferris wheels became a rage among couples at Marina Beach in Madras. A unique feature of these wheels was the star names their seats bore. Most of them were either labelled Kamal-Sridevi or Rajini-Sridevi. The man could be Kamal or Rajini. The woman could only be Sridevi.”
Nayak set out, through this book, to uncover all her movies, dissecting her performances, while inserting stories about her from interviews he had either conducted or compiled. This is also how Arif began working on To Sridevi With Love too; by chancing upon the 1500-plus postcards, magazine covers, and interview snippets of Sridevi from the Filmfares and Cine Blitzes that he had been hoarding over the years. He decided with his partner, Negi, to make it into a kitschy colourful, almost trippy tribute to her. (Such was his passion that when he used to fall sick as a child, his parents would get VCRs of Sridevi movies instead of taking him to the doctor.) The book is not meant to be literary or profound, it’s a mere gesture of love.
Nayak’s sober, dignified, monochrome cover, on the other hand, sets the tone of reverence his book will follow. The only way to dissect a private, guarded person is to dissect their work; anything else is off limits. He credits Boney Kapoor, Sridevi’s husband, with being the “invisible force behind the book”. All gossip relating to her has been tamed into nothingness.
At the other extreme, you have filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma who in his book Guns and Thighs christens Sridevi as India’s object of lust, dedicating his book to her thighs, and chastising Kapoor for marrying her and “bringing that angel down from heaven to such an ordinary, humdrum existence.” There is also Lalita Iyer’s Sridevi:Queen Of Hearts that is more open about the rough edges in her life, but as a result she doesn’t have the access to the inner circle which could have made for some intimate anecdotes. It’s a trade-off, after all.
Cinema can be magic, but for cinema lovers, it is quicksand. The affair with the big-screen often becomes more real as we begin to fixate on the actors we grow to love; we want to know all about their life. Watching their performances is no longer enough, we now feel the urgency to read about them- magazines, biographies, blind items, anything we can get our hands on.
But in Sridevi’s case, it is all a tepid affair. The life she has lived, growing up in a world of make-believe, surrounded by cinema all the time must be ripe with stories. I am not just talking about the internal anxieties of facing facing the camera at a tender age of four, or her nerves while shooting sex scenes as a 13 year old playing an adult. I am thinking of the muffled and stifled crushes she has had on co-stars, or the alleged revenge she spoke of in an interview, when a co-star ran a car over her feet for not reciprocating his feelings. I wonder about all the sadnesses, insecurities, joys, and euphoria… all of this, perhaps we will never know. But that’s okay, we have ‘Hawaa Hawaai’, and the edited, sanitized narrations of her life. We have to imagine the rest; Sridevi has taught us that much at least.