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Sridevi (1963-2018): Chandni fades away

As the last powerhouse to bridge the North-South divide in cinema, Sridevi was an actress whose beauty, talent, and expressive eyes shaped the dreams of a generation.

Shriram Iyengar

It is a strange coincidence that news of Sridevi's death arrives a day after the birth anniversary of J Jayalalithaa. In the post-Jayalalithaa world of Tamil cinema, only Sridevi rose tall enough to cast a shadow.

But to peg the actress as a legend of Tamil cinema would be a great injustice. Sridevi was the only actress who possessed the natural flair for drama, comedy, and vivaciousness that is needed to bridge the divide between North and South India.

Born Shree Amma Yanger Ayyappan, it was perhaps destined that the cherubic girl would become an actress. She was first signed on at the age of 4 to play the lord Muruga in the Tamil film, Kandan Karunai (1967).

The film was delayed, but it marked the entry of a child who was unafraid of the camera. The natural grace and charm and the iconic smile would remain part of Sridevi's career.

The internship was tough. As a child artiste, she shared screen space with such icons of Tamil and Telugu cinema as MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan and NT Rama Rao. It was perhaps inevitable that she would grow up into a star in her own right. This happened in 1976.

K Balachander cast her as one of the three problematic knots of his story in Moondru Mudichu (1976). The other two were two young actors named Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. Over the next three decades, the careers of these three iconic stars of Tamil and Indian cinema blossommed in parallel.

With Kamal Haasan in particular, Sridevi shared scintillating screen chemistry, paired in films like 16 Vayathinile (1977), Kalyana Raman (1979), Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (1980) and the sentimental classic Moondram Pirai (1982), remade in Hindi as Sadma (1983).

Her stardom aside, what set Sridevi apart was her intrinsic knowledge of cinema. As her mentor K Balachander would say in an interview to The Hindu newspaper, "As far as Sridevi is concerned, she was a child when she first worked with me. But I found her to be very intelligent. Though she was 13-14, she had the understanding of a 20-year-old. She was a quick learner and understood the nuances of her character. She learnt on the spot."

This ability to learn and adapt was to be her greatest strength. When the time came, Sridevi made the switch to Hindi cinema with ease. Her first film, Solva Sawan (1978), was a remake of her Tamil debut. The actress had earlier made an appearance as actress Lakshmi's younger sister in the film Julie (1975). The dismal performance of Solva Sawan postponed her Hindi success by five years.

The big breakthrough arrived with Himmatwala (1983). Starring Jeetendra and Amjad Khan, the film hyped up Sridevi's glamour by portraying her as the brash uptown girl. It worked a treat and audiences fell for the pair of Jeetendra and Sridevi. Films like Mawaali (1983), Akalmand (1984), and Tohfa (1984) cemented this pairing in the Hindi film industry. 

It took Nagina (1986) to put Sridevi on top billing as a star. Incidentally, the film was rejected by Jaya Prada before it fell to Sridevi. Her dancing skill (she was a trained Bharatnatyam dancer) and expressive eyes made her the perfect choice. Three decades before Priya Prakash Varrier, Sridevi could fell Achilles with her eyebrow. Her performance earned her a Filmfare Special award. 

She hit peak stardom with Shekhar Kapur's Mr India (1987). As the very Indian Lois Lane, she stole the limelight from under Anil Kapoor's nose. Whether it was shimmying to 'Hawa Hawaai' as Chaplin, or with the incredibly sensual 'Kaante Nahin Kat-te', Sridevi was the ultimate heroine. 

But she was more than just a beautiful face. Whether it was as the fierce Mayil in 16 Vayathinile, or the innocent Reshmi in Sadma, or even the brilliant double role of the timid Anju and devil-may-care Manju in Chaal Baaz (1988), she could carry a film despite her leading men. 

Even Yash Chopra, he of the very Punjabi romances, turned to her in his search of a new heroine. In Chandni (1989), Sridevi emerged as the heir to Rekha's throne with her portrayal of the woman of every man's dreams.

Chopra had no choice but to cast her once more in Lamhe (1991), where she again delivered a performance worthy of a Filmfare Best Actress award. 

Before the launch of her last film Mom (2017), Salman Khan remarked that she might be a bigger star than the Khans. "Put together, we may have all done about 250-275 films. But there is one legend who is very talented, dedicated, hardworking and professional. She completed 300 films after starting her career as a child artiste. Our work cannot even be compared to this legend — she is none other than Sridevi!" 

Even if he was simply trying to be courteous, Salman Khan was right in suggesting that Sridevi's filmography spanned the space between three generations of leading men. From Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth to Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, and Jeetendra, down to Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan (Chandra Mukhi, 1993), she was indomitable.

Yet, nothing lasts forever. The arrival of a new brigade led by Madhuri Dixit and followed by Juhi Chawla and then Karisma Kapoor meant Sridevi had to take a break. She focused on her family, with husband Boney Kapoor and later daughters Jahnvi and Khushi taking most of her attention. This was also a role she excelled in and performed with as much grace as her film roles. When the time came for Jahnvi to prepare for her film debut, she was well groomed. 

The lure of the camera, however, was too much for the actress to give up completely. The chance arose again in 2012, with Gauri Shinde's English Vinglish. With no leading men to offer her competition, and no star image to keep up, Sridevi let loose to show us an actress relieved of her burdens, and fears. 

The performance won over an entire new generation of fans who had only known her through cliched memes of her performances from the loud 1980s. For many, it was a sign of the actress reinventing herself. 

When she followed it up as the avenging angel in Mom (2017), cinephiles were thrilled. It was to be the beginning of a new era, they thought. Sadly, it wasn't to be.

Death claimed Sridevi just a few months before Jahnvi is due to make her debut in Dhadak (2018). The film is based on a torrid love story with grim consequences. For many fans, it is likely to be a reminder that their 'Chandni' is no more.