The context was unbearably prosaic: a 2005 press conference hosted by a soap manufacturer, featuring leading ladies who had endorsed the beauty soap over the years. The actresses were disingenuously hidden behind life-size cut outs of themselves, and each took turns emerging to applause, but in Sridevi's case, the gulf between cardboard and conqueror was too great, and to see her - so often immortalised on posters and magazine covers - suddenly in the flesh, walking in our direction, smiling and posing for the cameras, was too overwhelming. It felt surreal, like being confronted with a magic trick, when not expecting one. Also, she shone. I remember being spellbound by this luminous heroine who was, immediately and inevitably, the star of the room. I must have gaped.
We all have. Sridevi was to the spotlight born, and anyone who attracted the light with such urgency naturally overshadows those around her. She never seemed to be reaching out for it. Privately, in conversation or in interviews, the actress was a stunningly quiet person, simpering politely, speaking softly and rarely, entirely unrecognisable from her vivacious on-screen persona. It was as if we, who spoke to her and were introduced to her and tried not to forget our names in her presence, were getting to meet one twin in a two-sister movie, like the many she did. The other twin belonged only to the camera.
Looking back at Sridevi's work, her effervescence is astounding. Her face is a wondrous thing, fearless and gloriously free - all winks and pouts and tics and scrunched up noses - and she does electrifying things with it, whether to enhance a lyric she's mouthing, or to make us laugh, or to make us sigh. Her giant eyes are forever wobbly, perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown or a miraculous laugh. Her body is made up of contradictions, dainty wrists and graceful fingers keeping step with titanic thighs, a tremendous dancer frequently pushing herself into clumsiness. Her infamous voice is simultaneously painful and plaintive, shrill enough to get under our skins but also to call to us from another frequency. Her persona, too, is a tightrope act, poised between twin extremes of the naif and the dominatrix, a woman who knows what she wants, as well as one unafraid to ask if she doesn't.
True to those movies about snakes, Sridevi was a shapeshifter. She gave it her all in every role, casting aside vanity with that nonchalance only goddesses have. She blazed a trail as a performer, acting in cinema made across the nation, going from South to North and taking no prisoners as she continually broke new ground. She towered over the men in her movies, stealing a march because of her screen presence, and because of what she would do in the songs. Some of these songs often deserved better films around them, but what songs these were: where Sridevi could momentarily make up for the movie and its mediocrity with a twinkle and a shimmy, even when dancing atop a tabla the size of a townhouse.
On a different afternoon in 2005, I had recklessly approached Anil Kapoor with the idea of a sequel to Mr India, one of the best Hindi films ever made. I was young and silly and came to the table brimming with ideas, and Mr Kapoor patiently heard me out, appreciated my passion for the characters and their world, and, after we'd gone over several potential storylines, asked who I thought we should cast in the film. This question made no sense to me. What he meant, he explained, was a younger leading pair to appeal to the next generation, someone to carry the legacy forward. This is where I dug my heels in and said we must have the old guard in place, in entirety: from Kapoor's character Arun Bhaiyya, to Satish Kaushik's Calendar to the then-alive Bob Christo. It wouldn't be Mr India, I insisted, without Sridevi as Seema Soni.
One Sridevi scene always gets me like a punch to the solar plexus. It is in Mr India, when she wakes up to realise that the orphanage she lives above is uncharacteristically quiet because the kids are starving. She rushes in with boxes of pastries and chocolates and snacks and cake, but even these famished children are wary of her charity. She isn't a friend yet, and this scene, where she bites into a chip to get their attention and then earnestly pleads for their friendship, is where she wins them over. I'm moist eyed just thinking about it.
Losing Sridevi is a massive blow. While her films and her influence will remain forever, right now it hurts. It feels unfair and shocking and cruel. Right now it feels like we're all out of pastry.
(Raja Sen is a film critic, columnist and screenwriter. He is currently working on a children's book.)
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