I first saw Sridevi at the mahurat of Chandni. It was the late 1980s and mahurats were still standard practice in Bollywood. A-list films were announced with fancy functions where a ceremonial shot was taken. We were at the poolside of Mumbai's Centaur hotel. Sridevi, a vision in a white sari, was on stage with co-stars Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna. At one point, roses were showered on her – like they are in the film. I remember her towering presence and her outsized stardom. She was glittering and seemed so much bigger than the heroes flanking her.
My mother Kamna Chandra had written the original story for Chandni. So I got to visit the sets and watch Yash Chopra work. I had little sense then of what an amazing opportunity this was. I was mostly interested in staring at Sridevi who had become the Chopra fantasy goddess – resplendent in chiffons and white churidars. In some scenes, even the bangles were white. When the cameras were off, Sridevi said little. But when they were on, some sort of alchemy occurred and she was utterly transformed, becoming Chandni, a small-town girl whose fairy tale love story derails after her fiancée is paralyzed in a helicopter crash.
In my mother's original story, Chandni marries Rishi Kapoor's character Rohit. They have a son. But post-crash Rohit becomes insecure. His family becomes abusive and finally Chandni walks out on her husband and young son. She finds a career and love again with Lalit, played by Vinod Khanna. The last scene had her son, now a teenager, coming with a bouquet of flowers to his mother's wedding because he understands her reasons for leaving and supports her quest for happiness.
In my mother's original story, Chandni marries Rishi Kapoor's character Rohit. They have a son. But post-crash Rohit becomes insecure.
Yashi ji loved the story but perhaps he felt it was too ahead of its times. And so after many discussions, the narrative became tamer – Chandni and Rohit are engaged, not married – and eventually they are reunited at the end. The film also became impossibly glossy and beautiful. It had a few loopholes in logic – especially that bit where Rohit and Lalit meet abroad and sing a song about the woman each loves, not knowing that they are both singing about the same woman.
But Sridevi's luminous beauty and unforgettable performance propelled Chandni. Back then, you couldn't go to a wedding without hearing 'mere haathon mein nau nau choodiyan hain' blaring in the background. And white churidars became all the rage. The blockbuster success of Chandni rejuvenated Yash ji, who was reeling from a spate of flops through the 1980s. It enabled him to take the narrative risk of Lamhe, the complex relationship between a man, an older woman who dies and her daughter. Even Sridevi's astounding performance couldn't make audiences accept the love triangle. The flop broke Yash ji's heart but it didn't hobble Sridevi. She was unstoppable.
In magazine articles, Sridevi was often called the 'female Amitabh Bachchan'. It was the ultimate compliment for a Hindi film heroine.
In magazine articles, Sridevi was often called the 'female Amitabh Bachchan'. It was the ultimate compliment for a Hindi film heroine. I remember meeting her again at a photo-shoot for Movie magazine. It was my first job as a film journalist. Once again, we were at the Centaur, shooting her and Aamir Khan together for the cover. I remember whispering something to my editor Dinesh Raheja about how a certain pose or angle would look better. She noticed our interaction. She asked exactly what was wanted and then proceeded to deliver. I was gobsmacked. This, I concluded, is what stardom looks like!
More than twenty years later, I was still interviewing her – for English Vinglish and more recently, Mom. She was still painfully shy. She answered questions in clipped, diplomatic sentences that offered little insight into how she pulled off all those magical performances. There was a wall that was impossible to penetrate.
We will never know how she did what she did. But Sridevi changed the narrative for women in Hindi cinema. She was a singular sensation.
Salute and adieu.