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Rise of a new Sridevi as she returns to the mystery genre in Mom

After 50 years in cinema, and in her 300th film, actress Sridevi returns to a genre that she, and other heroines of her generation, have seldom tackled  —the thriller.

Shriram Iyengar

Five years ago, during the release of Gauri Shinde's English Vinglish (2012), actress Sridevi had mentioned in an interview, "My best is yet to come. There are more creative characters to play." When Sridevi, she of 300 films and a five-decade long career in cinema says it, it sounds prophetic.

Having started her career as a four-year old as the god, Muruga, in the Tamil mythological, Thunaivan (1969), Sridevi has gone on to deliver a range of characters immortalised on screen. Though Hindi cinema only discovered her in Solva Sawan (1979), she was already a name to reckon with in South India.

It was K Balachander who unveiled the potential actress within her in the film Moondru Mudichu (1976). A searing drama about the fatal love triangle, the film had Sridevi play the woman at the centre of the storm, and one who takes the film to its almost Oedipal climax. The film is a watershed moment for Tamil cinema as it was the first time, Sridevi, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan shared the screenspace. The three would become the foremost actors of their generation. The actress would later say about the director that he 'changed my life forever.' The director was no less effusive in his praise calling her a 'quick learner' who 'understood the nuances of her character.' 

Over the next decade, the actress experimented with a number of powerful, stand out roles in dramatic films. 16 Vayathinile (1977), Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (1980), Meendum Kokila (1981) and Moondram Pirai (1982) are perfect examples of a woman's struggle against the hypocrisy, oppression, and judgement of a patriarchal society.

It was her popularity down South that actually paved way for her success in Hindi films. After making her debut in the Hindi remake of 16 Vayathinile, Solva Sawan (1979), the actress went on a roll of films that portrayed her as the sensual, pin up girl. Films like Himmatwala (1983), Mawaali (1983), Tohfa (1984). There was also Sadma (1983), the remake of Moondram Pirai, which earned her the Filmfare Award for Best Actress in 1983.

Despite the variety and range of these films, the actress was never as involved in the genre of thriller cinema. A reason for this would be the lack of filmmakers willing to experiment with the genre during this period. The two rare ocassions in Tamil cinema where Sridevi tried the mystery thriller were Bharathiraja's Sigappu Rojakkal (1978) and Priya (1978).

While the first was a Hitchcockian thriller about a woman who discovers that the love of her life is a serial killer (Kamal Haasan), it combined the actress' two greatest strengths — her sensuality and nuance. The actress found the perfect balance between fear and determination in her performance as the docile woman who discovers that her husband (Haasan) is an Indian Henri Landru. While the film is known for Haasan's role that is in equal parts vile and vulnerable, it would be incomplete without the foil of Sridevi's performance.

Priya (1978) saw her take on another mystery thriller opposite the other superstar of Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth.

Playing the femme fatale-damsel in distress, Priya, Sridevi almost replicated her real life on screen. The film was based on writer Sujatha's Ganesh-Vasanth novels, which carried tinges of the cult Perry Mason in them. Rajinikanth played the do-gooder lawyer seeking to help the distressed actress (Sridevi), who is held captive by her controlling manager. Interestingly, the film did not have Sridevi and Rajinikanth opposite each other. Despite that, the film proved to be a blockbuster and ran for a 175 days in Tamil Nadu.

The actress' return to the big screen in Shinde's English Vinglish (2012) was unexpected, but not surprising. For someone who gave up her career to being a mom, playing the unappreciated, ignored Shashi lost in a foreign land, was a familiar scenario. The actress played it to critical acclaim across all boards.

Now, she returns after a five-year break in Ravi Udyawar's Mom. The film again sees her playing a mother, this time in a different shade. In an interview with film critic Rajeev Masand, the actress said, "Things are changing for actresses with a variety of roles," later adding, "We have to keep changing with the times. We can't do the same thing."

She has certainly made the start by picking a genre she didn't experiment with much. Now, it is time for the heroine to emerge from the shadows.