Sridevi Kapoor was a Bollywood legend, and one of the rare female stars with enough celebrity megawattage to match the lions of the Indian film industry, and enough above-the-title prestige to carry a film on her own. She was known simply as “Sridevi” – but this was not a kind of Madonna single-name branding. She was so ubiquitous that people thought of her as a friend.
Sridevi’s face was her fortune: beautiful, with a cherubic guilelessness that enabled her to play romance, musicals, drama, comedy and indeed action. Fantasy and fun were the solvents for her sexiness. In the 1986 film Nagina, or Female Snake, she had an uproarious snake dance. Audiences loved it when she did an outrageously broad Charlie Chaplin impression, while playing the goofy journalist in the 1987 film Mr India. She also broke out wacky Jackie-Chan-style fight moves, such as those in the 1989 comedy Chaalbaaz, or Trickster, where she played twins, separated at birth.
She was the nation’s lover, friend, kid sister and then in the 21st century – when she extended her celebrity yet further as a TV sitcom player and reality show judge – she became the nation’s mum, though a mum with an undimmed romantic life. Sridevi impressed herself upon the public from the moment she started in showbusiness at the age of four, as a child actor. She went on to make around 300 films in five different languages, often with the actor Jeetendra, finding fame in the 1980s with huge blockbusters, then stepping away from the business in the late 1990s after marrying the producer Boney Kapoor. Her comeback in 2012 was in the very charming and likeable romantic comedy English Vinglish, where she finds love in New York while learning to speak English. Last year, she released Mom, a gritty thriller in which she plays a vigilante-avenger out for payback when her daughter is raped.
But perhaps her most sensational film, and the one which lodged her ineradicably in the public’s mind is the potent melodrama from 1983, Sadma, or Trauma, in which Sridevi plays Nehalata, a 20-year-old woman who suffers a head injury in a car crash which leaves her with the mental age of a seven-year-old. She gets lost, and is trapped in a brothel, where a schoolteacher senses her vulnerability and innocence. In a dramatically redemptive demonstration of his own innate decency, he rescues her from this horrible place and brings her to his grandmother’s home where he takes care of her in a heartrendingly innocent way. But when he miraculously contrives for her to be cured by a local doctor, and Nehalata recovers her memory up until the moment of the car crash, she has no memory of this man and all that he has done for her. He is of course deeply in love with her, but now has to let her go.
Sadma did not have the immediate box-office impact of Sridevi’s other films but it soon gained cult status. It aroused the protective instincts of male moviegoers, who were fascinated by this child-woman’s vulnerability and gentleness in this film, and by the fact that this is juxtaposed with a world of corruption and predatory sexuality. At that moment, Sridevi became the nation’s sweetheart. Sadma is a movie to compare with the work of Hollywood’s great emotional master Douglas Sirk.
Sridevi found a similar register in the 1991 film Lamhe, or Moments, in which she plays a dual role, mother and daughter: the older woman dies and the man who was in love with her begins years later to have feelings for her daughter who is, of course, eerily similar. It is a rather Hardyesque tale, unapologetically emotional, playing on taboo and transgression.
Her sudden and desperately sad death at just 54 is, sadly, another trauma for the world of Indian cinema.
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