Before Zanjeer, there was Sridevi.
At least a year before Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer, little Sridevi witnessed her family getting killed by a bandit wearing a distinctive locket (this time, a skeleton instead of a horse). The film was Rani Mera Naam (1972), the Bollywood launch vehicle of Vijayalalitha, ‘female James Bond’ of Telugu cinema. Sridevi played the childhood avatar of Vijayalalitha’s character, Rani – much like the original Telugu version, Rowdy Rani (1970). Billed as ‘Baby Sridevi’, Rani Mera Naam was her first credited appearance in Hindi cinema.
The Night and The Lotus
Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan’s careers are curiously intertwined. Both of them vehemently denied any political ambitions till the recent past, only to enter politics almost in tandem with each other. Kamal played his first lead role in Tamil cinema with K. Balachander’s Apoorva Raagangal (1975), also Rajnikanth’s debut as an actor. Although inconceivable today, the two featured in almost 20 films, including Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Geraftaar (1985). But in their early days, it was another co-star of theirs who rose to stardom way before these two stalwarts: Sridevi. Moondru Mudichu (1976) was the first time the trio came together. Sridevi, all of 13, plays step-mother to Rajini, 26 at the time. The plot was edgy even by today’s standards: Rajini lets Kamal die as he has eyes on the latter’s betrothed, played by Sri. Sri avenges her lover’s death by managing to marry Rajini’s widowed father, thereby tormenting him no end.
Sri followed-up the success of Moondru Mudichu with Gayathri and Kavikkuyil along side Rajini, and Sigappu Rojakkal, Varumayin Niram Sivappu co-starring Kamal Haasan. While the other two were graduating from character actors to villains to leading heroes, Sridevi was already a bona fide star. What clinched the deal was another film featuring all three actors: 16 Vayathinile (1977). Written and directed by P. Bharathiraja, the film was a runaway success and is still considered a watershed in Tamil cinema. Though known for its stark realism and use of real locations, 16 Vayithinile was a Silver Jubilee (there were no ‘crore clubs’ those days. A Silver Jubilee was a film that had an uninterrupted run of 25 weeks, which can’t be said for the biggest blockbusters today). The film earned Sridevi her first Filmfare, and her stardom was validated. In retrospect, Sridevi can hardly be associated with ‘realistic cinema’ but this film showcased her acting chops like never before. Her portrayal of a village teen earned rave reviews. For a song, she had to ‘run in slow motion’ as the filmmakers couldn’t afford slo-mo photography, and she’s said to have spat on Rajinikanth’s face for a scene. Spat on Thalaiva’s face. For real. (And it was he who egged her on!)
16 Vayathinile was also the film that earned Sridevi her first lead role in Bollywood. Solva Sawan (1979), also directed by Bharathiraja, tanked at the box office (bewilderingly, Kamal Haasan’s role was played by Amol Palekar while Rajini’s part was played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda!). She had to wait for four more years for stardom in Hindi films. Success came through the remake of Telugu superstar Krishna’s blockbuster Ooruki Monagadu. Jeetendra starred opposite her in it, and the film started a new phase not only in Sri’s career, but Jeetu’s as well. It was called Himmatwala (1983).
All stars in the galaxy
Sridevi acted along side all the great actors and stars of her generation. All of them. And not just once. Apart from Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, she’s shared screen space with Rajesh Khanna (Maqsad, Masterji, Nazrana), Dilip Kumar (Dharm Adhikari, Karma), Dharmendra (Farishtay, Naaka Bandi, Jaani Dost), Vinod Khanna (Farishtay, Patthar Ke Insaan), Rishi Kapoor (Nagina, Chandni, Gurudev) and Amitabh Bachchan (Inquilaab, Aakhree Raasta, Khuda Gawah). Her most frequent collaborators were Jeetendra (Himmatwala, Justice Chaudhary, Mawaali and at least 16 more) and Anil Kapoor (Mr. India, Joshilaay and at least 11 more). But there was another star with whom her on-screen chemistry was out of this world: Mithun Chakraborty. Though they worked in but four films together – Jaag Utha Insaan (1984), Watan Ke Rakhwale (1987), Waqt Ki Awaaz (1988) and Guru (1989), to see their histrionics, especially their dance, was a sight for sore eyes. One needs to just take a good look at this to know what I am talking about:
The unknown and the unseen
But we haven’t seen all of her magic yet. There were some films that never saw the light of the day. Some of these were shot a few reels, others were barely announced and they got shelved. Perhaps the most awaited of them all, the one that we will miss for more reasons than one, was Khabardar (1984), a film that would have brought Sri, Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal Haasan together. The plot of the film was based on euthanasia – Kamal being the terminally ill patient praying for mercy killing while Bachchan would play his doctor. The film was shot almost entirely, and then discarded as the makers got cold feet, fearing controversy. This was a good 25 years before Guzaarish, made on a similar subject.
1991’s Kevin Costner-starrer Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had quite an impact back in the day (part of it owing to the OST and the then-ubiquitous Bryan Adams crooning “Everything I Do, I Do It For You”). In a couple of years, ace cinematographer Manmohan Singh (who worked with Sridevi on Chandni & Lamhe) launched an Indian “inspired” version of the Robon Hood, called Teerandaz, starring Sunny Deol and Sridevi. The film was announced with a lot of hoopla, with Yash Chopra clapping the mahurat shot, but the film never really took off.
And then there was Ramesh Sippy’s Zameen, where Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit joined forces for the first and the last time. Along side Sri & Madhuri, the film featured Vinod Khanna, Rajinikanth and Sanjay Dutt. The film is still in the cans. For another Vinod Khanna – Sridevi starrer Garajna, even a trailer was released. But the film was shelved despite being shot extensively. If released, Garajna would have the same cast as Chandni: Rshi Kapoor, Sri & Vinod Khanna. Around the same time, director Anil Sharma launched a project called Maharaja (possibly inspired from The Beastmaster – about a prince in exile who is brought up among wild animals – starring Sridevi & Anil Kapoor. But the film never took off, and eight years later the film was made with a new cast, featuring Govinda and Manisha Koirala.
Chronicle of a death, foretold
The news of Sridevi’s passing was spreading far and wide by Sunday, the morning of February 25th. As people struggled to come to terms with the shock, another name, another face kept coming to mind. And with it, the memory of another shocking demise. Uncannily, it was her birthday on February 25th. Divya Bharti. Divya’s astronomical rise in the early 90s, coupled with that chubby, impish face quickly drew comparisons. Media dubbed her the ‘new Sridevi’. And the parallels were uncanny – just like Sri, Divya was playing lead roles in South Indian movies (in her case, Telugu) in her teens. By the time she came to Hindi movies with Vishwatma, Divya had given a string of superhits in Telugu. She had been around just for two years. Soon, she had done two films with Shah Rukh Khan (Deewana, Dil Aashna Hai), one of them being his debut. Suniel Shetty also made his debut with her in Balwaan. She was witness to the one of the earliest David Dhawan-Govinda team-ups, Shola Aur Shabnam.
It all ended on April 5, 1993. Divya Bharti fell from the fifth floor balcony of Tulsi Apartments, Juhu. A 19-year old girl who had seen the pinnacle of stardom died, just like that. The presswallahs were just as unrelentingly sensationalist about her passing as Sridevi’s today. They pitted her against Sri and claimed the latter had to gain the most from her death (Divya had shot a few reels for Laadla before her death, and was replaced by Sridevi). The woman called Sridevi rarely ever explained herself, media’s shenanigans didn’t provoke her, much as they tried. She turned up to pay her last respects, and wept. Profusely.
Sridevi was sent off with state honours by the government. Some questioned this, saying she was but an actress, hardly deserving of such respect. This blogger is hardly competent to comment on any of that, but Oscar Wilde had to say the following about Sybil Vane, the ill-fated stage actress from The Picture of Dorian Gray:
“If this girl can give a soul to those who have lived without one, if she can create the sense of beauty in people whose lives have been sordid and ugly, if she can strip them of their selfishness and lend them tears for sorrows that are not their own, she is worthy of all your adoration, worthy of the adoration of the world.”
Coming soon: “In A Cult of Their Own”, A book on Hindi Cult Films featuring interviews of Naseeruddin Shah, Aamir Khan, Tinnu Anand, Rajkumar Santoshi, Sai Paranjpye and many others. For more details click here.