Ms. India: on Sridevi's pan-India appeal
Sridevi Kapoor Ayyappan, who passed away on Saturday, made her debut in cinema as a child artiste in the Tamil film Thunaivan in 1969. It was the same year that Amitabh Bachchan, more than 20 years her senior, faced the camera for the first time in Saat Hindustani. Even that early start does not take away from her remarkable feat of packing into her short life of 54 years almost 300 films and a career spanning five decades. More than the numbers, her career stands out for the sheer diversity of roles she played. Sridevi could not be restricted by linguistic or territorial boundaries. She could pull off Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam films with the same ease with which she ruled over the Tamil and Hindi film scenes. In this respect she outdid almost all her contemporaries, male or female. Sridevi is often credited with rewriting the rules of stardom and wresting the rightful space for the heroine in cinema. From Sivaji Ganesan to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, she acted with several generations of heroes and was that rare heroine to have starred as the lead with a real-life father and son, Dharmendra and Sunny Deol. But none of her superstar heroes — be it Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth — could achieve success in as many languages as she did. They were kings of their own fiefdoms, while all of India was her playground.
What she lost out on was childhood. Her first adult role happened at the age of 13, opposite Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, in K. Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (1976). Apart from Balachander, her other significant mentors were Bharathiraja and Balu Mahendra. Their complicated, moving love stories, 16 Vayathinile (1977) and Moondram Pirai (1982), did not just firmly entrench Sridevi in the Tamil film industry; the Hindi remakes Solva Sawan (1979) and Sadma (1983) forced the Hindi film industry to take note. It is widely agreed that her performances in southern cinema were far more organic than her glamorous turns in the north, be it Varumayin Niram Sivappu, Meendum Kokila or Kshana Kshanam. But she managed to display her enormous range in Hindi films too. She comfortably swung between parallel streams of critical and commercial hits in Hindi. She started off with kitschy song-and-dance routines in southern productions. Despite being initially unversed in Hindi, she worked hard on her way to the top. Chandni, Mr. India, Chaalbaaz and Lamhe showed her versatility — drama, emotion, dance, comedy, even action. Sridevi may not have crossed over to international projects but her appeal went beyond India. Spontaneous outpouring of affection is expected when a young life is suddenly cut short. In her case it was also to do with the personal connect she established with individual viewers. Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam — in each industry she had a special place for herself. But the fact is that she couldn’t be owned by any one; she belonged to all.