Sridevi, the legendary Indian actress featured in over 300 films across Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada languages, in a career spanning almost five decades. Her first brush with cinema came at the age of 4 in the 1967 Tamil film Kandhan Karunai. She continued to work as a child artist in several regional films, thereon. At 13, she landed her first adult role in Tamil film Moondru Mudichu (1976). Her first lead role in Hindi was Solva Sawan in 1979 but her first big hit was K. Raghavendra Rao’s Himmatwala. It was followed by a string of hits in the 80s, the decade that made her a star.
At a time when Hindi cinema was all about hero-centric films, Sridevi was enough to lead her films to success. Over the years, she has enthralled and enchanted all with her acting prowess, grace and elegance. Her untimely demise was unfortunate. It’s still hard to believe she isn’t among us anymore. The shock of the initial blow still remains with us today.
Today on her 56th birth anniversary, here’s revisiting the best performances of India’s first female superstar:
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1. Moondram Pirai (Tamil)/ Sadma (1982)
Director: Balu Mahendra
Sadma/Moondram Pirai is a gratifying tale of selfless, unconditional love. It presents a compelling portrayal by the leads, Sridevi and Kamal Haasan. It had me overwhelmed with emotions as I watched it. The exploration of the psychological abnormalities and anomalies blended with a kind of childish innocence makes the movie a classic that has triumphantly stood the test of time. Moondram Pirai is, without a doubt, my favourite film featuring Sridevi and I can say, without any hesitation, that the same is true for quite a sizeable portion of her fanbase.
Watching Sridevi act is like watching a master swordsman craft a blade. She is calm, composed like the ever-recurring, constant and unflinching hammer strike and simultaneously wild and uncouth like the fire that burns the steel hot red. The balance of the child-woman act is noteworthy. She is able to switch between the two personas as instantaneously as the water turning to steam on hitting the red hot burning steel. Her grace and indifference during the scenes when she still possesses memory versus the unchained childlike persona without it, are complete contradictories. Yet, she manages to merge them together into one body and mind. Truly, her capabilities are beyond remarkable.
Sridevi’s performance in the film brings to mind the Freudian theory of id, ego and superego. We witness a constant clash and battle between the three. A portrayal that invokes such deep and inquisitive knowledge regarding the already mysterious human mind is truly worth appreciation.
Where to watch: Sadma – Netflix, Moondram Pirai – YouTube
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2. Chandni (1989)
Director: Yash Chopra
Chandni came at a time when mainstream Bollywood was inundated with corny and cringe-worthy action films. Yash Chopra’s musical starring Sridevi, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna was a celebration of romance in his signature style of storytelling. But more than that, it was a celebration of Sridevi, her beauty, charm, tremendous flair for acting. Her innate ability to light up the screen with her presence alone is enough to justify her character as the central role. She stood tall among the more experienced actors — Waheeda Rahman, Rishi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna, Sushma Seth.
There wouldn’t have been a bigger risk for Yash Chopra to do a heroine-centric film at a time when mainstream Bollywood was confined to the hero-villain template. But the film turned out to be hugely successful both critically and commercially. (Tidbit: Did you know Yash Chopra had initially planned to cast Rekha for the role. That didn’t work out and Rekha apparently herself recommended Sridevi for the part).
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
3. Lamhe (1991)
Director: Yash Chopra
This film was well ahead of its time. Perhaps this movie came out a bit too soon for an audience which was not ready to accept the kind of relationship that was depicted in the film. A man is in love with a girl, who goes on to marry another man. The couple dies and leaves behind a daughter who falls in love with the same man who loved her mother. Awkward much? But there’s a but in between. The direction and execution by Yash Chopra give it a very playful and innocent characteristic. It’s a simple film, the premise of which might be hard to stomach for some, but it has its heart in the right place. What a brave film for its times.
And Sridevi is absolutely stunning in it. She does justice with both her roles of the mother and the daughter. The subtly different performances and the nuanced but adequately noticeable shifts in the tone and demeanour are striking. The many different facets of both the characters are explored well.
Truth be told, I couldn’t find a single flaw in the extremely bipolar and varied portrayals. Her zeal and dedication to pull off something like this, shows through in every frame.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
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4. English Vinglish (2012)
Director: Gauri Shinde
Gauri Shinde’s debut feature marked late veteran Sridevi’s return to films after 14 years. A delightful and tenderly crafted piece of work, English Vinglish was a landmark film in her 50-year spectacular career. Gauri hadn’t initially written the film with Sridevi in mind but her eventual casting was an emphatic reminder how Bollywood has constantly failed to tap the experience and potential of our yesteryear actresses. (The very graceful and charming Madhuri Dixit’s performance two years later in Abhishek Chaubey’s Dedh Ishqiya was another fine example. But these come few and far between. Let’s hope we can write more roles for them).
Shashi Godbole is easily one of the finest performances of Sridevi’s career, almost close to Moondram Pirai. It might appear to be an easy role but it hardly is. It’s the effortlessness and genuine relatability with which Sridevi plays it, that makes it look easy.
Where to watch: YouTube (premium)
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5. Chaalbaaz (1989)
Director: Pankuj Parashar
Chaalbaaz is a comedy movie in which, Sridevi comfortably finds her bearings with her electric personality and flexible acting skills. Here, she plays another dual role which has been identified as one of her best performances by most critics. The back and forth and all the confusion that is created is quite believable unlike many other movies featuring twins because of the beautiful and diverse portrayals given by Sridevi. Except the looks, the two characters are like chalk and cheese. There isn’t a hint of similarity. Even their speech patterns differ. That is the depth to which Sridevi has pulled off her characters. Moreover, the stock characters, that are the two sisters are individually quite interesting as well. She is able to pull out the strengths of the ever-vulnerable sister and the vulnerabilities of the tough and independent one, with equal ease.
The dynamics that she finds herself in while portraying the two characters are notable. She not only has the talent to accept the entirety of both characters but actually becomes an extension of their emotional and psychological faculties. The way in which she is able to justify the characters is special as well. She’s all cheerful and perked up in one and reserved and restrained in the other. The switch between the two is handled with deft.
Where to watch: YouTube
6. Mr. India (1987)
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India was a breath of fresh air in a wasted decade for hindi cinema. Led by Anil Kapoor, the film had Sridevi play a supporting character in Bollywood’s first superhero film of sorts. Despite this fact, she steals the show quite often with her breathtaking beauty and undisputed charm.
And who can ever forget the glamourous Sridevi dance to ‘Hawa Hawai.’ She was so stunning in the songs and the film altogether. She blended situational humor, slapstick comedy and her feminine charm together to create a piece of art that is timeless and masterful. I could go on talking about her and this song but getting back to the film, she shows a sense of maturity throughout. Here, she is both innocent and mature in her role. This mixture of innocence and experience gives her an edge on herself as a character for she creates something that is quite like a real person with multiple parts of oneself, all combined to make a complete whole.
Where to watch: YouTube
7. Kshana Kshanam (1991) – Telugu
Director: Ram Gopal Verma
Kshana Kshanam is a crime thriller road movie directed by Ram Gopal Varma, which also falls into the neo-noir genre. The Telegu language movie thus established itself as a complex mix of a few different genres. Sridevi’s portrayal feels right at home as she plays the role of an innocent middle-class woman who is dragged into the world of crime when she stumbles upon a clue that could lead her to a large sum of money.
Some scenes from this movie have remained iconic and unforgettable throughout her career. This includes the scene in which she thrusts a knife into a goon’s body to kill her. She is visibly shaken and scared. Her hesitant yet resolute persona comes forth as she displays genuine intent in that scene. Another brilliant one was her brush with the snake. Here, the fear that she portrays through the character translates well to the audience. Moreover, we can clearly see her will to live through that one small scene.
Her calibre is unquestionable throughout the movie as she portrays, with conviction each and every emotion of the character, with wonderful accuracy and precision.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
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Sridevi had the ability to encapsulate the various intricacies of every character she took up. She became one with her characters with ease. It was hard to put together her image of grace and elegance off the screen with the playful, unhinged characters she played on the screen.
She tapped into her own life’s experiences to bring believability into every character she played and with her flair for acting, breathed life into them.
Sridevi was a gift to Indian cinema. The day she passed away was perhaps one of the darkest for the industry. After a long hiatus, she was back to the big screen with English Vinglish and had just reignited the flame of her glory. There was so much of her yet to come and get discovered by this generation and those to follow. But her repertoire of work will remain with us as a testament to her undying glory and mastery in her artform. She will be remembered for decades to come and her films will stand as an example of timeless acting, elegance and grace.
By Deepjyoti Roy
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