Why Don’t We Have A Good Sridevi Biography?

Penguin’s official biography, Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, is sincere enough, but doesn’t do justice to a woman who will always be counted among Indian cinema’s finest
Why Don’t We Have A Good Sridevi Biography?

Sridevi — actor, film producer, icon, legend — deserves a good biography. One that moves deftly between the personal and the professional, one that foregrounds her reticence but probes it as well. Sridevi cannot exist only on screen, for the screen fades, prints deteriorate, and the memories of performances float away as the generations wither. For better or worse, what remains are the anecdotes, the stories of the stories. 

With Sridevi, there is just one looming narrative. That on set, she was silent, comfortable in her coyness, disinclined to engage with actors. But when the clapper shut and the scene rolled, she shed her inwardness, like a snake's skin, to be whatever one demanded of her — a vamp, a belle, a beauty, or a snake herself. As critic Baradwaj Rangan notes, "She would see something, grab it and then project it in her own way, absorb reactions of others and use it when needed." 

She called herself a "spontaneous actress" whose first take was always the best and agreed with most critics that her performance in Sadma (1983) was shrill; that she performed the same role with a more eloquent quietness in the Tamil original Moondram Pirai (1982). Even Sridevi could not replicate Sridevi's magic — what other word can be used to describe that alchemy of personality in front of the camera? 

Spending five decades in the spotlight, starring in 300 films across five languages, Sridevi was, to quote writer Mayukh Sen, "an actress who could empty an entire nation's pockets by drawing it to the theatre, single-handedly evaporating an audience's sorrows." Doesn't this shock of talent, this labyrinthine filmography deserve a text that reads it, elevates it, contextualises it, and further shocks it with an irreverence for respectability that is founded upon deep love? 

There is an official biography, titled Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess (earlier titled Sridevi Girl Woman Superstar). Written by Satyarth Nayak, it charts Sridevi's "journey from child star to one of our greatest luminaries who forever changed the narrative of cinema." That is both the bottom line and limitation of the book. A sincere, sober account of her as an actor, it refused to think of her as a fallible icon, as a star whose glitter was both blinding and blind-siding, comfortable with her as a smoky persona. 

Born to a Telugu-speaking mother and a Tamil-speaking father, Sridevi was in front of the screen from the tender age of four. Typecast as a child actor playing the gods Murugan and Krishna, over the years, she — and the industry — would break out of this mythological mould. At the age of 12, she was asked to don a sari and play a leading lady. At the age of 13, she had to simulate sex in front of a camera for a song. 

Like any teenager, she had a fraught relationship with her body — her nose, her waistline. The biography hints at this without looking at its repercussions. It refuses to speak of what this insecurity snowballed into — botox, surgery, diets — because it is so aware of the moral stigma around such beautifications. It prefers to sanitise Sridevi rather than authenticate her life as a person who bled just as we do.

A biography must be brave, willing to revel in its protagonist, complicating one's adoration, twisting one's dismissal into a second chance. It mustn't be shackled by the moral demands of its generation. Otherwise it condenses into a fan-service documentary, like those about and produced by artists — Blackpink: Light Up The Sky or Shawn Mendes: In Wonder or Shut Up Ya Sona — curating a safe, culled image of oneself that no one but the fans find appetising.

Besides, in this 250-page book, Sridevi is never seen, or even considered as a person in her own right. She's only viewed through her contexts and connections — as an actress, a daughter, a wife, a mother. The desiring, seething, tired and tiring, excited and excitable soul beneath these social and spectral demands is buried, an inaccessible relic that we only get hints of. 

In Nayak's biography, Suhasini Maniratnam notes that Sridevi harboured a sweet crush on a co-star, an affection that was chopped away by her mother's looming shadow which always followed Sridevi on set. Who was this co-star and how did a teenager's longings and resentments chafe against the commercial interests that filmmakers had over her body and her art? In later interviews, Sridevi speaks of a co-star running a car over her feet for not reciprocating his feelings. Who are these monsters that she mingled with? 

Such questions and concerns are swept away by Nayak: "Sometimes the more luminous a star turns, the more obscure he becomes in real life. [emphasis: mine] The performer in Sridevi had become so all-consuming that there seemed little room for the person she was." He sculpts Sridevi as a compilation of her performances, helped with quotes like "If I am not shooting, I love lazing around the house and watching videos. And if I do go out, it's only to have fun on the beach, the zoo, or go for long drives or walks," from Sridevi's interviews.

The truth is every portrait will be an incomplete one, for that is in the nature of portraiture, but that the guardrails are so uptight around our stars that few can even hope to attempt a portrait — this is the disheartening part. The issue is, after all, access. For Nayak to be able to write Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, he needed the trust of the many people he interviewed, including her husband Boney Kapoor, acknowledged as "the invisible force behind this book". It is a trade-off, then, between access and authenticity, one that is made clear when we look at other attempts at a Sridevi biography, like Lalita Iyer's Sridevi: Queen Of Hearts.

For example, the tumultuous year of her secret wedding to the already-married Boney Kapoor (which eventually became public) is dealt with by Nayak in a coy paragraph. Nayak doesn't bother speaking to Sridevi's step-children for this book. It's irrelevant to the project. Similarly, between 1997, when the actor walked away from Bombay cinema and 2012, when she made her "comeback" with English Vinglish, Nayak's biography, unable to find the interiority of its protagonist, reduces her to a dutiful wife who would walk barefoot from her house in Lokhandwala to Siddhivinayak Temple at Prabhadevi for the success of her husband's films. By ironing out a complicated life, you don't end up with a flat, warm sheet, but a creased attempt; a crease that reminds you of a glorious crumple that no one had the patience or courage to deal with on its own terms. 

Perhaps, it is fitting that fans have mobilised among themselves, producing meticulous blogs or kitschy coffee table compilations like With Love To Sridevi as gestures of uncritical love, a fandom that finds no reason to be discerning in the face of an industry that cannot give its finest stars a fitting biographer. 

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