Devi… Sridevi…

A Madras boy remembers the actress, the star who could do everything every kind of director wanted her to do
Devi… Sridevi…

Growing up in the seventies and eighties, in Madras, meant you grew up with Sridevi. Actors and actresses, those days, made a ton of movies a year, working in multiple shifts, across multiple languages. So Sridevi was everywhere in Tamil and Telugu cinema. There wasn't a number system those days. At least in the south Indian press, titles like "Queen Bee" or "Numero Uno" did not exist. In the sixties, Saroja Devi was a top actress, and so were Savithri and Jayalalitha. In the seventies, Sridevi was popular, and so was Sripriya. "Popular," those days, meant they starred in many films with up-and-comer young stars like Kamalahasan (the spelling change to "Kamal Haasan" was a while away) and Rajinikanth.

But Sridevi was special. It was a time Tamil cinema was changing. Directors like P. Bharathiraja, J. Mahendran and Balu Mahendra — even K Balachander, whose seventies' style is markedly more "cinematic" than what he did in the preceding decade — were finding ways of expression that were different from those of melodrama monarchs like P Bhimsingh. And Sridevi fit into that mould as well. She fit into every mould, really. In Hindi cinema, they called her the ultimate "switch-on, switch-off" actress. That must have been true, for she certainly did not have a great deal of life experience to draw from, having grown up in the studios, in front of the cameras from when she was a child.

In Hindi cinema, they called her the ultimate "switch-on, switch-off" actress. That must have been true, for she certainly did not have a great deal of life experience to draw from, having grown up in the studios, in front of the cameras from when she was a child.

Perhaps her greatest gift was that she gave each director what they wanted. If Bharathiraja, in 16 Vayathinile(1977), wanted her to do nothing more than stand still, conveying sadness through her eyes (they were big, beautiful eyes) as his camera zoomed in, she did that. If Balachander, in Varumayin Niram Sivappu(1980), wanted her to mimic S Janaki's wordless musical phrases in the Sippi irukkuthu song sequence, she did that — she was a marvellous "song performer," which is its own kind of acting. And she did what S.P. Muthuraman asked of her in Adutha Varisu(1983), where Rajinikanth tries to pass her off as the heiress to a province. The sceptical queen quizzes her about the state symbol. She throws her head back and laughs exaggeratedly (she's saying, through that laugh, "Surely you don't expect me to not know the answer to this!"), buying time till Rajinikanth gestures to the lion carving above the queen's throne. She collects herself and gives the right answer.

It's not easy, this kind of acting. The passing of Sridevi is a good time to dwell on "Indian commercial film acting." It's dying out in the north because everyone wants to make real films, with naturalistic performances that seem to be the only kind that get appreciated anymore, and it's dying out in the south because mainstream Tamil and Telugu cinema is filled with actresses who don't speak the language and are required to do very little. This kind of performance has less to do with Stanislavsky than the Natyashastra, the navarasas — which may explain why so many actresses of that era were such good dancers as well. There was a touch of the gestural, the performative. Nothing was internalised, or even if it was, there had to be something declarative, something the audience could not just feel but also see — say, a tiny twitch of the lip.

Trained actors cannot do this kind of acting, which is a direct (a trained actor may call it "shameless") appeal to the audience's emotions. Yes, some of this has to be seen in the context of the films that were being made, and their style, but that is why Kamal Haasan called Sridevi an excellent bag of tricks. She had a bottomless bag, apparently, and she could pull out whatever "trick" whichever director wanted. One cannot speak of Sridevi without speaking about Kamal. Like the tagline in the Wills ads, they were Made for Each Other, one bag of tricks constantly up against the other. If he did that Methody, mumbly thing he began to do from around the time he made Kokila(1977), she threw something actorly right back at him. Theirs wasn't chemistry. It was electricity.

Oh, the songs they made together. Ilankiliye from Shankarlal(1981). Devi Sridevi from Vaazhve Maayam(1982). Look at Radha Radha nee enge from Meendum Kokila(1981). He's goofing around, a Krishna in a silver jacket and a fedora from which a peacock feather sticks out. She matches him step for step. It isn't easy matching Kamal Haasan step for step. Vadivelan manasu vechan from Thai Illamal Naanillai(1979). Seen today, perhaps some of these songs come with a "you had to have been there" warning label, but I'm talking about a certain kind of unembarrassed commitment to the goings on, where the actor says, "Okay, so this is what I have to do, and maybe it's something I personally wouldn't do, but I'm going to do my darndest to make everyone believe that this really is me." Acting, in other words.

Then, she went to Bombay, where the press was more ready with labels. She was anointed "Numero Uno." But something seemed different to those of us from the south. Here, she was cute. There, she was "cute." There's a difference. She seemed to be more plasticky, the nose looked different, the voice was squeaky and didn't fit. None of this is to say she still wasn't great. She was just great in a very different way. The films relied more on her glamour, her outsize-ness — and again, she dug into that bag of tricks and gave exactly what her directors wanted. Sometimes, like in Mr. India(1987), magic happened. I admit this may be a very "southern" reaction, rising from a sense of ours becoming theirs. Tamil and Telugu cinema still needed her. What was she doing jumping around with Jeetendra? But her mind was made. When she did return, for the one-off Naan Adimai Illai(1986) with Rajinikanth, it wasn't like a homecoming. It was like a queen on a state visit.

She went on to become the next in a line of south Indian actresses who became the leading heroine in Hindi cinema. Her most memorable role? I'd still pick Moondram Pirai(1982), and my favourite scene is the one where Kamal gives her a sari and drifts off into a reverie, expecting this amnesiac with the mental faculties of a little girl to have magically transformed into a woman. Ilayaraja sets up the mood with a languorous piano duetting with violins. Sridevi steps out of the room, the sari perfectly draped. She does everything Kamal wants her to. She's sophisticated. She's romantic. She's in control. She's even motherlike, drawing his head to her bosom, giving him milk from a glass. Then he snaps out of it, and sees that she's tied the sari all wrong. She's still the little-girl amnesiac. The scene showcases everything Sridevi was, the child-woman, the aloof and unattainable beauty, the seductress, the idealised (and idolised) star.

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