While Sridevi’s talent and stardom are well known, a less known fact is that she was also an idol for the queer community in India.
Sridevi – The death of India’s most cherished gay icon
Mumbai - 28 Feb 2018 5:00 IST
While the country mourns one of Indian cinema's biggest stars, Sridevi's death is an exceptional loss for the gay community, which has worshipped her over the years. In her death, the community has lost one of its cherished icons, a hero and idol who, even if unconsciously, had a huge impact on the lives of its members.
“To know that she was my idol all along (and will be) is enough," wrote writer Vivek Tejuja after news of Sridevi's death broke. "She was a beacon of hope for so many gay kids growing up in the 1990s, wanting to be Chandni or relating to Pooja’s angst or pining like Benazir. An icon that was larger than life. An icon who made life come alive.”
Sridevi, who started her career at the age of four, went on to become a big star in the 1980s and 1990s, doing films in multiple languages and experimenting with her roles. She was perhaps the only one in her time who could stand shoulder to shoulder with her male co-stars when it came to stardom and pay.
For those coming to terms with their sexuality in the late 1980s and 1990s, the talented Sridevi became an epitome of rebellion and self-expression with her on-screen outings which were far from the demure heroines who came before her.
"She pushed the envelope for trying new things that other women didn't take up," said Sushant Divgikar, a model and actor who has represented India at the Mr Gay World pageant. "So, I believe she is a pioneer in 'Bollywood'. She is a big hit in the gay community. She was very fashion forward and a good-looking woman. She was way ahead of her time.”
Actor and filmmaker Nakshatra Bagwe said Sridevi's portrayals helped him embrace being different. “For me, as an actor and an openly gay one, she was a path-breaking person," Bagwe said. "Her roles were out-of-the-box, way beyond clichéd, typical ones. That didn't just help me accept the colourful artist in me but also taught me to respect the whole identity of being so-called different. She was different but still impactful and loved. This gives a whole level of confidence to follow that path of being different and still being able to create your own impact."
Many who were struggling with identity and sexuality issues found a representation of their struggles in Sridevi's roles. Whether it was the demure Anju and fierce Manju fighting injustice in Chaal Baaz (1989), Pooja's rebellion against societal norms in Lamhe (1991), Seema’s elaborate costume dance in the Mr India (1987) song 'Hawa Hawaai' or a naagin coming out to the world about her dual identity in Nagina (1986), her portrayals resonated with gay men.
“I was 11 when I watched Lamhe for the first time," said Tejuja. "At 9, I knew I was gay. I was struggling. Knowing there is someone like Pooja out there who would perhaps understand my angst was enough. That has lasted till date.”
Sridevi's unconscious portrayal of characters with conflicts and grey shades was also inspiring. Gay activist Harish Iyer, who has been vocal about how Sridevi helped him cope with rape for several years during his childhood, said, "You would empathize with the Anju who gets beaten up and molested by Balmaa in Chaal Baaz, but you would believe she could end up with taxiwala Jaggu and use her empathy and the fact that she was fearless with an unknown man. She epitomized how one could be empowered once they fear nothing, when they have been through the worst. Sridevi meant all of this to me.”
Sridevi's burlesque outfits in many of her dance numbers in films like Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1993) had a huge appeal. So did her graceful angst-driven dances, which include the 'Moments of Rage' sequence in Lamhe (1991) after she is slapped by Anil Kapoor’s character and the Indian classical Taandav in Chandni (1989). These sequences mirrored the inner feelings of many gay men. Songs like 'Main Teri Dushman' or 'Hawa Hawaai' were dance floor favourites at gay parties.
What made her special was the flamboyance with which she portrayed her characters, whether in dramatic or comic scenes or dance sequences. "In that age, she was doing things that were so flamboyant — her costumes and looks. Our community really connected with that because they were in that closet," explained Divgikar in a recent article. "They used to live their fantasies through Sridevi. She set the bar for a diva. She has got some amazing songs and I will definitely do a tribute on Sridevi in April."
Thus, Sridevi, with fierce roles, experiments with style, which included some over-the-top costumes and headgear, and a powerful persona took over 1990s cinema and also the hearts of many gay men.
"I think she became the gay icon in the 1990s because she had the swag, the attitude was in place, and she inspired a lot of gay boys and men to just be who they were without apologies," said Tejuja. "She conveyed these in her roles, which reflected in our lives through the screen."
Bagwe said, "She wasn't just a person who gave her gay fans some dance numbers to shake it out. She was the epitome of self-expression. She told us to show our true colours and enjoy life. She was always a pro-gay rights person and that just added an extra cherry on top. She was our own Lady Gaga who will always be our favourite gay icon.”
The death of Sridevi is surely the end of an era for a generation of the LGBTQ community.
Tejuja said, “I am sad. Very sad. I can't figure out why. It doesn't even feel like she is dead. There is this immense sense of loss, and I have never felt like this for any other celebrity passing on, but this one feels very personal."