“I have always believed that your face is a mirror to your nature.” – Sridevi
Indian actor and producer Sridevi was a versatile artist who worked in Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam as well as Kannada language films. Often considered to be the “First Female Superstar” of Indian cinema, Sridevi’s illustrious career spanned five decades and earned her numerous national accolades. On the anniversary of her untimely death, we revisit Sridevi’s life and career as a celebration of her unique talent and her invaluable contribution to Indian cinema.
Born in Tamil Nadu in 1963, Sridevi was involved in the performing arts from a very early age. She started her career as a child actor at the age of four in a Tamil film called Kandan Karunai, going on to make her debut in the Telegu film industry just three years later. The following year, she received a prestigious State Award for Best Child Artist for her performance in the Malayalam film Poompatta. This was an indication that the burgeoning artist was capable of great things even at such a tender age, paving the way for bigger accomplishments. Sridevi made her Bollywood debut as a child artist in 1972, and there was no looking back. She later reflected on how things turned out, “I lost out on going to school and college life, but I got into the film industry and worked without a gap – from child actor, I went straight to heroine. There was no time to think, and I was grateful for it.”
Her big break came in 1976 when she starred alongside the iconic superstar Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan in K. Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu. Despite being only 13-years-old, she played the role of an adult woman who is desired by both her roommates. Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan would become recurring colleagues for Sridevi. She found herself partnering up with Rajinikanth on various subsequent projects like 16 Vayathinile and Kavikkuyil. As for Kamal Hassan, she worked with the legendary actor on 27 different projects. Sridevi’s portfolio kept growing as she collaborated with veteran actors like NT Rama Rao and Sivaji Ganesan throughout the late ’70s without much difficulty, proving her versatility and her fantastic ability to adapt to the demanding roles.
Although Sridevi made her debut in a leading role in a Hindi film in the 1979 production Solva Sawan, her breakthrough performance happened in the 1983 film Himmatwala where she starred alongside the famous actor Jeetendra. Her dance scene to the song ‘Nainon Mein Sapna’ became wildly popular throughout the country and established her as an actress of significance who was on a meteoric rise to the stop. Sridevi followed it up with another leading role in the highest-grossing film of Hindi film of 1984, Tohfa, which led to Filmfare magazine’s famous declaration that she was “Unquestionably #1”. The actress would end up working with Jeetendra on 16 different projects, forming a unique on-screen partnership. In 1994, Jeetendra reflected: “I have done 15 films with Sri. Her sincerity and her inborn gift for acting brought her forward. She has carried herself very well and to this day, one cannot guess how old she is though she has been playing the heroine for the last 12 years. It could be a case of overexposure but somehow she has changed her look and dress-sense to keep pace with the times.”
In the same year as Himmatwala, Sridevi earned widespread critical acclaim for her work in the romantic drama Sadma where she played the role of a victim of amnesia. This performance is seen as one of the formative ones in her impressive career and inspired future generations of aspiring actors. Her popularity had reached such dizzying heights that despite having a guest appearance in the 1986 film Janbaaz, the audiences responded to her much more enthusiastically than the lead heroine. “I’m glad people still remember me in that brief role. It’s all because of Mr Feroz Khan’s presentation that I made an impact in Janbaaz,” she admitted later in her life. That year, she would also star in the film Nagina which became a sensation that spread throughout the country. Her role as a shape-shifting woman in that film is now fondly remembered as one of the best performances in her extensive career.
However, the most iconic role of her career was her portrayal of a goofy crime journalist alongside Anil Kapoor in Mr. India. One of the most influential Hindi films of its time, Sridevi proved that she was just as effective in comic parts as any other. Her dance number ‘Hawaa Hawaai’ became an instant hit and achieved cult-status as an unforgettable moment of cinematic magic. The film’s director said: “I never miss a Sridevi film. I’ve seen most of her Tamil and Telugu films. I was very impressed by her performance in Moondram Pirai. She was brilliant…As an actress she’s remarkable. By far the most complete performer we ever had. You may call her an extension of Geeta Bali. She has surpassed Vyjaianthimala and Mumtaz. She has the passion of Meena Kumari and Nargis and the vulnerable charm of Madhubala. All she needs is to do a film like Mughal E Azam.” Sridevi enhanced her unprecedented success with further acclaimed performances in ChaalBaaz and Chandni.
Her involvement in Yash Chopra’s 1991 film Lamhe divided the audiences because of its subtextual incest themes, proving to be more popular with metropolitan crowds as opposed to conservative Indians. Despite the controversy, Sridevi picked up several awards, and the film was well-received by critics as well as internationally. Over the years, it even achieved the status of a cult-classic. At one point, even Steven Spielberg approached her for a small role in his iconic project Jurassic Park, but the actress considered it to be offensive to her stature and refused the opportunity. During the ’90s, she had to deal with a lot of personal turmoil because she lost both her parents in the same decade. After her mother’s demise in 1997, Sridevi took a break from the demanding film industry in order to process things properly. She would return six years later to work in television, slowly building up to the popular comedy-drama English Vinglish (2012) after a 15-year absence from cinema. Critics heaped praise on her truly powerful performance, which reignited her film career. She would participate in more projects like the crime thriller Mom (2017), but her final on-screen appearance would come in 2018 in a cameo in Aanand L. Rai’s film Zero.
Sridevi passed away in 2018 after suffering a cardiac arrest at the age of 54. When the news was first announced, people were in disbelief and thought that it was an internet hoax. However, the reports were confirmed, and an entire nation mourned for the tragic loss of a national treasure. Sridevi’s legacy is enormous, and it is safe to say that she will always remain one of the biggest stars to have ever worked in the Indian film industry. In an interview with The Times of India, the actress said: “The journey has been phenomenal. I have learnt so much from the many incredibly talented people I worked with. Every day has been a learning experience and, in a field like this, you have never learnt enough.”