“She was the diva of the 80s who did the Tohfaas and the Himmatwaalas and you came into your own with path-breaking films like Arth and Saaransh. How did your paths cross?” asked a young writer who is chronicling the life of Sridevi, an actor par excellence, whose rise to the top was slow and steady, but the end, sudden and tragic.
I first met Sridevi in the dark auditorium of a cinema hall. She was up there on the silver screen. The film was Balu Mahendra’s Sadma in which she was paired opposite Kamal Haasan. What hit me about her persona was her earthiness. That undefinable native charm which was the unique attribute of this enigma, made her stand apart from the other leading ladies of those times.
The leading ladies who rose to the top in Mumbai had, because of westernisation, lost their feminine mystique. Most of them were modelling themselves on the western icons who appeared on international magazines or in Hollywood films. Since our leading ladies were monkeying the West, the core Indian audience was feeling deeply unfulfilled. Sridevi brought India back into Indian movies. This ‘India’ness became her springboard to super-stardom. For me, her best performance was in her husband Boney Kapoor’s Mr India, which was directed by Shekhar Kapur.
“Let’s take Sridevi for this role, she is not only a star, but an actor of your kind,” said the late Yash Johar, the founder of Dharma Productions. After Naam, Aashiqui, Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi and Sadak, I too had become a bit of a star director. The reputation that I am an actor’s director became a bridge for Sridevi and me to meet and work in the early 90s in Gumrah. Working with Sridevi was a memorable experience.
The character of Roshni from Gumrah was a lot like Sridevi herself. All great performances are drawn out from the body of an actor. A good director is like a good gardener. He brings out the beauty of a plant from the DNA of the seed, by merely watering it and protecting it. I did not force-feed my ideas into this acting machine. I merely created an environment for her to bloom, which she did. Gumrah was a mediocre success, but if at all people remember that film, it’s because of her heartfelt performance.
“You should learn what trusting a director means from Sridevi, never did she question me for presenting her in the most deglamourised way in the jail portions of Gumrah,” I said to an actress in the 90s, when she was giving a hard time to my assistants by refusing to wear a “non glamorous” costume which the film demanded.
When I look back on her glorious innings in the movie world, I cannot help but conclude that long, successful career arcs do not happen by chance. They are fuelled by courage and discipline, and the ability to take risks. “Not taking risks is a bigger risk Madam,” I remember telling her when she was voicing her concern about some producers, for shedding her glamorous persona in Gumrah. My conviction was the lodestar which saw her all through the making of Gumrah.
How can I forget what she did during the shooting of the climax of Gumrah? “She has got very high fever Mahesh. I think we will have to cancel the shooting and break down the set,” said Yash Johar, as soon as I entered the massive prison set where a fight sequence was to be shot inside a water-tank. Yashji’s apprehensions were right.
There was no way I could ask this star to step into a water tank and participate in a fight sequence with Sanjay Dutt and Bob Christo. But the idea of re-erecting that massive set which cost a fortune was also weighing us down. But there was no way out.
“There is a way out. I am calling for my doctor, I will take an injection, get my fever down and shoot. Period. Just make sure that we keep the fans far away from me,” said Sridevi with a dead-pan face.
Tales of such magnanimity of film stars seldom reach the world. Demonising superstars is a profitable business. For me, the memory of Sridevi presenting Alia with her first award would have been an ideal image of a happy ending to our association. The body posture of Alia, awe-struck to see this diva bestow her with this prestigious award, is so life-affirming. But life makes you live on its own terms.
I had first met her in Centaur Hotel in a room full of roses, when Yashji and I had gone to sign her for Gumrah. It was her birthday. Little did I know then, I would one day see an image of Sridevi on a cold TV screen, lying dead, in a sea of flowers. Movies have a happy ending, this is real life.