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Sridevi: An 80s Icon of Indian Cinema

Tarnjoat Kaur

Tarnjoat is currently studying English and American literature. She enjoys writing about a variety of different topics including lifestyle, current trends, culture and postcolonial issues.

In February Indian actress Sridevi was in the UAE with her youngest daughter, to attend a pre-wedding ceremony for Sridevi’s nephew. On the morning of the 24th of February she phoned her husband to tell him that she missed him, and was later astonished to find that he had flown in to surprise her. They chatted and Sridevi went to have a bath before planning to have dinner with her husband. Twenty minutes later her husband called out for her and received no response. Her husband went into the bathroom to check on her and found her submerged and unresponsive in the bathtub. By the 3rd March her body had been flown back to India where her ashes were immersed off the coast of Chennai, the city in which she was born. Her death marks the demise of an iconic actress who brought a unique charisma to Indian cinema.

Sridevi started acting in Tamil movies at age 4 and from early childhood was singled out repeatedly by directors as an exceptional actress. In 1983 she received much success as an adult in Hindi cinema with the movie Himmatwalla, marking the beginning of an illustrious career. By 1987 she was already producing blockbuster smashing films such as Mr India, in which she played the newspaper reporter Seema. The movie also included her famous comedy sequence going undercover as Charlie Chaplin, a moment which proved her versatility as comedic as well as a serious actress. Sridevi continued to produce box office hits such as Chandni (Moonlight) and ChaalBaaz, (Trickster) winning many awards along the way.

ChaalBaaz in particular illustrated Sridevi’s full range as an actress. She played double roles as two extremely different twins who had been separated at birth. Anju is timid and abused by her uncle and aunt, while Manju grows up as a fierce beer-chugging dancer who lives in a slum. When the two accidentally switch lives, we get to see Sridevi as Manju whip her uncle with the very same whip he used to beat Anju with and psychologically torture her abusive aunt. This was one of the most memorable scenes of Sridevi’s career, as up until this point, many stock female roles within Indian cinema called for timid women who were morally pure or morally corrupt and in need of a lesson. However, in ChaalBaaz Sridevi brought a strength to her female characters that she had not previously given the space to explore, and she flourished.

Director Pankaj Parashar when reflecting on the movie mentioned that when he pitched it to her he did not have a script and instead pitched the plot of Sita and Gita, a Tamil film of which ChaalBaaz was a remake. Despite this she said yes and threw herself into the movie, improvising lines and adlibbing her own custom one-liners. Her co-star Sunny Deol even told Parashar that he should have warned him that Sridevi was such a firework of an actress so that he could have kept up.

In 1996 Sridevi married Director Boney Kapoor and subsequently had two children. After many years of hiatus from acting she made a comeback in 2012 with English Vinglish. This was no small feat as at the time marriage was still largely an act of career suicide for any Indian actress, yet with English Vinglish she was declared the Meryl Streep of India, marking the beginning of what should have been the second chapter of her legacy. Instead she leaves behind two grieving daughters, a loving husband and the grief of the end of an era within Indian cinema.

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