YESTERDAY ONCE MOREby Khalid Mohamed February 24 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 15 secs
Khalid Mohamed rewinds to his conversations with his all-time favourite, Sridevi, whose fourth death anniversary is today, February 24.
“Sridevi interview fixed,” the editor of the Sunday edition of the Times of India had said, to her fan-boy. A job located after a year of scouring, it was tempting to believe that I’d become a journalist who could be a pukka professional and conduct a conversation with unquestionable diligence.
So what if Sridevi was right on top of my-most-want-to meet listicle ever since I was shaken-‘n-stirred by her as a memory-lapsed girl in Sadma? Favourite is an overused word, but she was mine, unarguably.
Cut to the interview. And so, no she couldn’t be saying this, “I’m scared of tomatoes. I couldn’t sleep at all last night.”
“Exxxxcuse me,” I jumped out of my skin. “Did I hear you right?” I had. By way of explaining her groggy look in a suite of the now-defunct Sea Rock Hotel in Bandra, she had elaborated, “Not real tomatoes but huge round, red monsters in a horror movie I was watching on video last night.”
For evidence, she had pointed towards the culpable video cassette of The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a 1978 Hollywood Z-grader. Its jacket sleeve bragged at length, “They’ll beat you, bash you, squish you, mash you, chew you up for brunch!”
To date I believe that was a quintessential Sridevi moment. She could be funny, shuddery, sweet and vulnerable. I was converted on the spot, forgetting all the other adored heroines of the time. Here was a star-actor, on the cusp of striking gold in made-in-Mumbai cinema.
She could just manage a smattering of Hindi. It was said the grown up Baby Naaz would dub her dialogue. Who cares? Her Bambi eyes, the pert nose, the tallish frame and citrus fruity lips spoke for themselves. Besides I’d never seen any woman, on or off the screen, with such a perfectly timed split-second fear, enacted right before my eyes.
She spoke in staccato English. Her sister, Srilatha, entered to reprimand her, “Speak properly. Discuss career”, and then flung an instruction to me, “Be quick. She is very tired, so there are many sittings for story sessions.” Although her first outing Solva Sawan (1979), in the company of Amol Palekar, had laid an egg at the ticket windows, Sridevi was nevertheless being coveted by Bollywood sovereignty.
An appointment with Salim Khan, lately gone solo as a scriptwriter, was within five minutes. Knock, knock, he was already at the door. Entered the ever genial Khan saab. On sighting me, he retreated charitably, saying that he would return in an hour. “Carry on, carry on,” the writer had smiled, advising the sisters, “Yeh press log can be very touchy. Don’t get on their wrong side.”
No way, in the case of Sridevi , never. She became the right side of every coin, of every film for years. Although many of her movies could be yuckfests, she was capable of transforming the absurd to the delectable. She was our very own Alice in Wonderland, Delilah, Eliza Dolittle and even the vengeful Snake Lady rolled-‘n’-rocked into one. Then she married producer Boney Kapoor, they had two daughters Janhvi and Khushi, she reappeared in the TV serial Malini Iyer, thereafter in two feature films, English-Vinglish and Mom. She had started painting figuratives on canvas. And she was gone at the age of 54.
Four years after her sudden death in Dubai on February 24, the tragedy is still unbelievable. Heartfelt eulogies were written in her remembrance. There was a flipside too. The media, particularly television, was guilty of gross sensationalism and wild conjectures. Rumours and mystery still abound.
This is a given perhaps in an era when the hysterical and bombastic are a must to grab eyeballs. The coverage of the loss of Indian cinema’s beloved Sridevi, who had acted in 300 films in various southern languages and in Hindi ever since the age of four, is best deleted from the memory files.
Some exceptions have been taken to calling her Indian cinema’s first female superstar. To that one can say, yes there were top divas before her, take Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini as the most obvious instances, and there have been other actors who have worn the crown after her, be it Madhuri Dixit or Deepika Padukone. Yet there can be no argument about the fact that Sridevi ruled, and that too with a certain grace and humility during the 1980s and the early ‘90s.
I never saw her put on airs, surround herself with acolytes or secretaries who would demand magazine covers for her, unlike the commonplace practice, then and now. She spoke when spoken to, tended to be courteous and brief in her answers. Not exactly an interviewer’s delight; no one is among the Bollywood heroines but for Rekha occasionally and Shabana Azmi always. Sridevi was neither talkative nor controversial. Intuitively, she knew where to draw the line when it came to discussing her private as well as her professional life. At one point, the outspoken choreographer Saroj Khan had stated that she would not work with her following a misleading statement advanced by a producer-director. Sridevi was flummoxed, and maintained a silence.
Fortuitously, the choreographer called for a truce, their collaboration lasted through 22 films, and memorable set-pieces including Main Naagin Tu Sapera (Nagina), Hawa Hawaai and Kaate Nahin Kat Te (Mr India), Mere Haathon Mein Nau Nau Choodiyan (Chandni), Morni Bagah Maan (Lamhe) and Naa Jaane Kahan Se (ChaalBaaz).
It’s widely believed that the actor was wary of discussing her emoting style and how she assumed an entirely different persona, from the retentive to the extrovert, as soon as the camera was switched on. I’d like to think that she could open up about her artistry and some more, when she felt at ease.
Here are selected excerpts, then, from a series of interviews with Sridevi, over the years, which I hope disclose some edifying aspects of the star-actor for whom her metier was as essential to her as breathing:
Have you ever assessed yourself as an actor?
I haven’t. For me there can be no beginning, no end. I’m every woman before the camera but myself. If I was ever asked to play myself, the character would be very boring, no one would go to see the film. The audience always wants to see me as a bright, bubbly, chulbuli ladki. I act spontaneously, maybe because in our rush-rush system of filmmaking there’s no time for rehearsals.
See, if a husband, father or brother dies in a film, I cry and cry till my eyes hurt. But when my father (Ayyapan Yanger) died in real life, there were no dramatics, no hysteria. In films you have to convince the audience you’re grief-stricken, go over-the-top even. Perhaps I can cry for a death scene realistically only in an art movie. But I’ve never acted in art movies.
Would you act in a film directed by, say Shyam Benegal?
Before I retire – maybe? Just joking, I don’t think I will ever retire. In any case, it’s pure entertainment for me right now.
Can you recall the first time you faced the camera?
Very clearly, it was for the Tamil film Thunaivan. I was hiding behind my mother’s sari pallu. She said, “Pappi, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I believed her and since then acting has come naturally. It’s said child stars have a rough time. I didn’t. There was another child, though, who had to cry along with me for a scene. I just broke into tears but the other child had to be pinched hard by his mother to cry out loud with pain. I played my first grown-up role in the Telugu film Anuragalu, a remake of Shakti Samanta’s Anurag. I was playing a blind girl, I made my eyes go blank. I was an obedient child, I guess.
How come you’re looking extra-slim of late. Have you consciously gone in for a new look?
I wish I could say “Yes” to that. But no, the way I look now wasn’t planned. Once I was 63 kg., now I’m down to 55 kg. A month ago, I wasn’t feeling well because I was shooting day and night. It was reported that I went through a special Ayurvedic course to become slim. I’m afraid that’s not true. I’ve never taken any medicines to change my physical appearance. I tend to put on and lose weight very easily. In a couple of weeks, I can look absolutely different, which must have something to do with my genes.
Once I recovered from fever and exhaustion, I wanted to return to normal, eat the way I used to. But then I was told I was looking good. So, I’m going to stay this way even if I have to keep myself away from fries, milk shakes, ice-creams and chocolates. (Rolls her eyes) Since I don’t exercise much nowadays, the only alternative is to keep off the delicious things of life.
It’s been over a decade since Himmatwalla. What, according to you, accounts for your staying power at the top?
Please, I never think about this. I’ve never plotted and planned my career or my life, which are intertwined. I’m committed to eight or ten films at present. They came to me, I didn’t go shopping for them. When Himmatwalla was released, a magazine called me ‘Thunder Thighs.’ I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult. Believe me, I just go with the flow and let my performances speak for themselves.
You never try to study a character, interpret it?
No, where’s the need? You grasp what’s given to you and do it right there before the camera. There’s no point in getting worried or wound up.
You do land yourself in a controversy at times, like the way you did when you visited Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, Jayalalitha - when she was fasting over the Cauvery water dispute. Your films were banned in Karnataka and there were protests in Bangalore about the release of Gumrah.
I certainly didn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. I had known Jayalalithaji ever since I was a child. When she was fasting, I made a courtesy visit. I’m an actor, not a political person. The word politics doesn’t figure in my dictionary. The film associations helped me out to pull me out of a controversy I didn’t know the ABCD about.
Once your half-brother’s name, Satheesh, was mentioned on the front pages of newspapers in connection with a mysterious murder in a hotel.
That was completely false. Satheesh is so simple and straightforward. He wouldn't be involved in anything remotely shady. The incident took place in the hotel where we were staying and his name was wrongly mentioned. He's a mechanical engineer and looks after our family's factory manufacturing plastic covers in Sivakasi.
Did your parents ever tell you how they got married?
Yes, my father, he was a lawyer, would often relate the story. My mother, Rajeshwari, was travelling in a car, which met with an accident. There was some kind of a legal case and my mother had gone to a lawyer's office where she met him. Theirs was a love marriage. Father was so cute and jovial, he'd often tease her about their first meeting. I’m told I look and behave like him.
He contested the general elections once. Were you in favour of him joining politics?
We all tried to dissuade him. But his brother was in politics and wasn't well enough to contest from Sivakasi. My uncle requested him to contest on the Congress ticket. Of course, he was very upset when he didn't win. I campaigned for him and some other Congress candidates. But I was really scared of the crowds, I would give the same speech at all the rallies. I have got feelers to join politics but I know I just don't have the calibre to become a politician.
Could you portray a politician on screen?
I'd love to play the role of Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
There were offers for you from Hollywood. Why haven’t you tried to make it internationally?
I’ve never tried to run after any goal or struggle. There have been no more feelers from Steven Spielberg again. I had said no to an adventure film he was producing… the director would be someone else… because I just couldn’t drop all my commitments here, leave the producers in a lurch and fly off to America.
Isn’t the competition hotting up in Bollywood?
Where’s the competition? Every heroine has her own place in the industry.
I would like to hear your frank opinion on Madhuri Dixit.
(Without pausing) She’s very good, a good dancer, she has her own style of acting. I liked her, especially in Dil. But I know what you’re getting at actually. I couldn’t do Indra Kumar’s Beta because I was far too busy at that time. And there are no regrets about that. Madhuri and I say “Hello” whenever we come across each other. My father brought me up very strictly - he made it clear that I should behave properly. That’s why I first ‘namaste’ everyone and then get on with my work.
Would you agree to do a tantalising Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai?
See, I’ve done my own fair share of what you call ‘tantalising’ dances. As for Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, my only response is “No comments.” To that I’d add the song had a catchy beat, I liked it. Khush?
Are you avoiding the Madhuri Dixit type of Dhak dhak dances?
I don't think I could do the Dhak dhak dance. Simply because I know that the body movements required wouldn't suit me. The song was well picturised though, she danced very well.
Once Jaya Prada and you were at daggers-drawn. Is that war over?
We weren't fighting a kushti match. But I suppose there was a sense of competitiveness between us. We'd try to act better than the other in the many films we did together, like Tohfa, Mawaali and Maqsad. She wouldn't speak to me but all that's over now. She came over when my father died. She was caring and concerned, it was a very kind gesture.
Whom have you admired most of all as an actor?
Sivaji Ganesan. There’s a little element of him in every actor in the south today.
Whom would you rate as proficient dancers in Hindi cinema?
Amitabh Bachchanji has grace, Rishi Kapoor has style, Govinda freaks out, Anil Kapoor gets extremely enthusiastic so that you have to keep pace with him.
After living and working in Chennai for years, are you finally comfortable in Bombay?
At long last I am, ever since I’ve moved into my own apartment (Green Acres, Versova). Now I can have ghar ka khana. I’m secure instead of fearing that anyone could barge into my room. There’s mental relaxation.
What do you mean by ‘mental relaxation’?
That I’m not tense anymore. I don’t have to depend on room service or live like a gypsy. As the saying goes, there’s no place like home.
Have you met your neighbours at Green Acres?
No, not really, but there was an elderly couple who dropped in to say “Hello.” They said I shouldn’t hesitate to contact them if I needed anything. And of course there are the children, they wait in the compound to see me when I’m leaving for the studios and ask for autographs. They’re very cute.
Are you a sound sleeper?
(Darts me an are-you-nuts expression) I do but on some days I wake up early because I’ve just had a dream.
What kind of dreams?
Usually there are snakes hissing all around me. Especially when I have a cold or fever, those snakes are back there scaring me in my sleep.