Sridevi in a film as a child artiste
Sridevi in a still from the Tamil film Thunaivan, released in 1969, where she played little Lord Muruga

With her bright and beautiful eyes, curly locks and innocent face, Sridevi’s screen presence as a child artiste was much sought after by directors. She was comfortable performing a range of roles, from a child god to a spoilt brat to a suffering child, and was able to switch gender—donning the hat of a boy or a girl with equal ease. Sridevi would go on to become one of the highest paid child artistes in the country before she would play adult roles.

Her first character role in Bollywood was in Sadma, which is the story of a young girl who slips into severe retrograde amnesia after an accident and then finds herself in a brothel from which she is rescued by a school teacher, Somu (Kamal Haasan). He brings her to Ooty, where he lives and teaches. Nehalata/Reshmi (Sridevi) is, in effect, a twenty-five-year-old body living in a six-year-old’s mind.

A still from Sadma, released in 1983
A still from the Hindi film Sadma, released in 1983

As she steps off the train at Ooty, she is delighted by the things she sees around her. She tries to lick the water dripping off the rooftop of the train, and squirms at its metallic taste. With her pigtail, which always twists upwards, she tries to keep pace with Somu, and on the way gets distracted by a green flag sticking out of the coupling between the rail bogies and tries to reach for it. ‘Yeh kiska jhhanda hain?’ she asks, trying to make a grab for it, just as the guard approaches, which scares her away. At the time, none of this seemed incongruous, even as it was enacted by a full-grown, voluptuous woman—except the voice and the accent to some of her critics. Cherubic and vulnerable, Sridevi fit the part well. Unfortunately, though, the movie flopped big time and Sri decided to stick to commercial films like Himmatwala, her first mega hit, for a while.

“She established a connection through her expressive face, even though her words may not always have had the perfect diction. ”

Working in multiple languages—and Sri acted across the Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi film industries—is not an easy thing. The cultures are different; so are the expectations. But the biggest challenge is the language itself. Born to a Tamil father and Telugu mother, Sridevi could speak fluently in both. At the beginning of her career in Hindi films, her parts were dubbed, initially by prominent actresses and later by a noted child actress of the past, Naaz, who got her pitch and sing-song voice down pat. For Janbaaz, shot in 1986, Feroz Khan insisted that Sri dub her own lines. This was a rare and unusual occurrence. But since it was a small part, she agreed. This would set the stage for Yash Chopra’s Chandni, the phenomenal hit of 1989, where she dubbed her own lines in the entire movie and then never went back to a dubbing artiste.

Her challenges with language explains why she decided to make her comeback, many years after she’d left the industry, with English Vinglish (2012), a film in which Shashi (Sridevi) sneaks off to an English class while in New York for her niece’s wedding, so she can win some respect from her family, especially her husband. ‘They used to call me a “parrot”. I used to mug lines, the meaning and giving the expression, without knowing the language. I’d retain the dialogue, emote what was necessary, but I didn’t know what I was saying in the beginning when I did films in Kannada, Malayalam and even in Hindi in the 1980s. Now I’m better but …,’ she had said during an interview to CNN at the Toronto International Film Festival where English Vinglish was screened.

For someone with a language dilemma, Sridevi had a long and illustrious career across almost three hundred movies! She established that connection through her expressive face, even though her words may not always have had the perfect diction. And her most valuable talent was her comic timing.

ChaalBaaz, for example, is a whacked-out comedy with peppy music. It took the then oft-repeated formula of identical twins separated at birth and gave it an exaggerated, comic-book treatment. Sridevi played a double role: of the demure, God-fearing, oppressed Anju and the street-smart, beer-loving Manju. She won a Filmfare award for Best Actress in 1989 for this film. There is a scene in the movie in which she imitates actor Raaj Kumar while threatening Amba (Rohini Hattangadi) with a knife. That line and that scene— ‘Jaani yeh chaku hai lag jaye to khoon nikal aata hain’—have gone down in history as one of the most iconic comic scenes ever in Indian cinema.

The other thing was her sheer dedication to her craft. Sri took her work very seriously, whether it was her dance steps or her costumes. During the shoot of Mr India, for example, there was no rehearsal hall, and, in the manner of someone who always does her homework, Sridevi said to choreographer Saroj Khan, ‘I am willing to dance in the corridor.’

It’s hard to believe Gauri Shinde when she says Sridevi was off her radar when she wrote English Vinglish. Sridevi excelled in the role as only she could. Fifteen years after her superstar days, she carried the movie on her shoulders with effortless grace and skill. And audiences were reminded once again why the screen is where she always belonged. She infused the part with just the right amount of vulnerability, restraint and quiet strength, delivering a performance that was nothing short of perfect.

(This post has is brought to you by the Editorial Desk at Westland, publisher of Sridevi: Queen of Hearts)