It had been a long night. At quarter past 3, I logged onto Facebook to check for updates one last time before I hit sack when a disturbing little headline caught my eye: Sridevi passes away.
No. No way. Nonsense. Unthinkable. Impossible.
This is absurd.
Every single voice in my head rejected the heartbreaking possibility outright.
Given the standards of journalism today, I believed the news to be a sick joke and checked elsewhere to confirm. They all said the same thing.
As I gathered my wits and fought a sense of déja vu thinking about Farooque Shaikh’s demise under similar circumstances in Dubai less than five years ago, I noticed a deluge of perfectly articulated condolences and poetic goodbyes in social media. Everyone was quickly accepting this terrible, terrible truth while I struggled to believe it.
Only a couple days ago, I was admiring her resplendent appearances at her nephew’s wedding in Dubai. How could someone so fine and flawless die all of a sudden without any warning?
As much as I want to punch this fact in its face, it’s what happens sometimes. People we love leave us behind with big, gaping holes in our hearts. Losing Sridevi feels personal and I just cannot process it. My head is dizzy in denial and exploding with memories.
In 1986, I was a starry-eyed school kid wowed by her spirited snake dance in Nagina’s Main Teri Dushman. I loved how her eyes swelled up in rage yet her body moved gracefully in a pristine white lehenga. Back then, I knew all her steps by heart and would grab any chance to slip into my Coca Cola-coloured lehenga and transform into a serpent hit by a seizure for my family’s amusement.
When I saw Mr India, a year later, I was as old as some of the kids in it. And I felt as reached out to as they did when she offers the famished lot snacks and pastries.
I cried at her gentle gesture just as much as I chuckled at her flair to club Honolulu, Mombasa and King Kong in one breath as the impish Ms Hawa Hawaai. Add to that a comic ode to Charlie Chaplin and chiffon-clad passions in Kaate Nahi Katte, it’s all too likely Sridevi’s all-rounder prowess and not the wonder watch that turned Mr India invisible.
But it was her beer-glugging enthusiasm and super sass in tackling the boys, baddies and buffoons of Chaalbaaz whilst asserting her independence as a woman living on her own terms in a ‘mardon-ki-banayi duniya‘ in one role and a stuttering, sympathy-evoking mouse in another that made me realise something important about the actress.
Only Sridevi can outshine Sridevi.
Her breathtaking embodiment of Yash Chopra’s most cherished theories of romance in and as Chandni heralded the era of the female superstar, a sentiment Bollywood patronisingly acknowledged by addressing her as the female Amitabh Bachchan.
Sridevi was delightfully cheeky in her impersonations and tributes — be it Nargis or Michael Jackson, but her individuality stood out and loomed larger-than-life. It particularly resonates in the last scene of Lamhe, my favourite from Sridevi’s oeuvre, when Anil Kapoor tells her, ‘Tum kisi ki tasveer nahi. Tum, tum ho, sirf tum.’
In the years that followed, pre and post-sabbatical, be it her poignant anticipation and resentment as mother and daughter in Khuda Gawah, horrible boss overdose in Laadla, terror-stricken convict in Gumraah, husband trading gold digger in Judaai, undermined everyday mommy in English Vinglish or vengeance-seeking stepmother of an ungracious teen in Mom, Sridevi never ceased to impress.
Any kid growing up in the 1980s will be familiar to her invincibility. I enjoyed that about her.
She giggled with abandon.
She burned the dance floor as seductress and snake. She made more faces before I’d even heard of Jim Carrey.
She could be a diva, a devi or Daffy Duck channelling the endless rhythm in her being. But I began to appreciate and miss Indian cinema’s most gritty, glamorous and goofy leading ladies only after she disappeared from the scene to concentrate on her personal life.
Sridevi holds an unmistakable influence on an entire generation of actresses including her own. I am often awestruck by her consistency and charisma.So many of my columns are barely concealed love songs to her dedication and intensity.
You’ll never find any instance of Sridevi being lazy in front of the camera. She practically grew up in front of it. No matter how ridiculous or monotonous a scenario, she’d give it a one hundred per cent.
She never really became THE Sridevi. She always was.
Ever since I saw her in Sadma, where she evokes protective instincts even of a child, somewhere subconsciously I became aware of what it is to respect art.
In Aakhri Raasta, where Rekha dubbed her voice, she offsets some of the dramatic tension caused by Amitabh Bachchan’s revenge-thirsty protagonist by creating believable seconds of humour and humanity. Her exuberance could not be caged in arm candy parts and she made sure to break through.
The initial phase of her career, where she was shamed for her ‘thunder thighs’ and subjected to objectification in films like Himmatwala and Masterji, is uncomplimentary and embarrassing in front of the glory she went on to gain.
Sridevi may have kept away from all the noise with her famously ice demeanour but all through her reign as numero uno, her off-screen existence was plagued by negative narratives — link-ups with co-stars, rumours of cosmetic surgery, the ‘other woman’ tag that religiously fuelled the gossip industry.
Except the enormous respect she was showered as an artist kept the wagging tongues at bay. In recent years, she became more prolific in her social appearances and dazzled with her sartorial elegance and promise of more.
Her versatility made me wish to see her in roles that would reveal exciting new facets of her enigmatic personality. Sadly, that’s all it’ll stay now, a wish.
I will miss you.
I’ll celebrate you. Everything about you.
That funny laugh of yours.
Your big, beautiful eyes brimming with hope and mischief.
The way you took complete control of the screen once you stepped inside the frame. And that terribly shrill voice, one we laughed at and with, they are as much part of your identity as a cinematic legend.
I’ll cherish this imagery like I always have of your best film.
Silver screen’s beloved child, I’ll remember you as the face of joy for ever.