Good Housekeeping

Sridevi: Actor, Wife & Mother


It's been more than a decade since she was seen on screen as the unchallenged diva of Hindi films. Times have changed and Bollywood has evolved - for better and for worse. New faces, better make-up and less melodrama is the face of new-age Bollywood. As I waited for Sridevi at her beautifully-done Chennai home, I am somewhat sceptical... Would she have changed from the beautiful Chandni of Yash Chopra's super hit by the same name? or would time have left a mark on her too? When she breezed in for our shoot- refreshing in a Manish Malhotra printed top and soft blue jeans - I was taken aback. She still made the perfect picture: Flawless features, an hourglass figure, a smile just as brilliant as it was back then, and all of it dressed in impeccable manners.

The camera beckoned and it became evident that Sridevi had not lost touch with the actor in her either. She posed, smiled, modeled... All the charming grace. A decade may have separated her and showbiz but she is still very much the star.

At a tall 5'7 she towers over everyone, but that's not the only reason why you notice her. She was and is, quite simply the perfect Indian beauty with large, expressive eyes, sharp features and an appealing child-like expression.
The camera had noticed her even as a child of four, back in the 1960s. Recalls the actor "My father's brother (A politician) couldn't make it to one of the functions he was invited to so he asked my father to go instead. I went along with him. It was there that Kaviarasar, the famous Kannada poet, spotted me. He came over and asked Dad if he'd be willing to let me act. Flustered, Dad asked for a little time to think and then took me home to talk things over with my mother. She was very excited about the whole thing. While the discussion was going on, Kaviarasar himself arrived at our home. My parents gave in. Karviarasar introduced me to Devar (a Kannada director) and persuaded him to cast me as the child Lord Muruga in his movie, Thunaivan. In between, Devar asked mother to shave my hair for the role but she put her foot down and almost whisked me off the sets. Finally, I played baby Muruga with longer hair" (And of course baby Sridevi looked utterly adorable)

It was on the sets of Thunaivan that MG Ramachandran spotted Sridevi and signed her on for Nam Naadu (1969). And a spate of films began. Soon she was a star and still not 10!! Her parents tried to keep everything normal. Though she stopped attending school in the first grade and began doing almost 2-3 shifts a day, her father saw to it that led as regular a life as possible. "Dad made sure that I was always surrounded by family members- not to spoil or mollycoddle me but retain a "family" atmosphere. He came from a well- educated family, and being a lawyer himself, he made sure that I did not miss my education. A home tutor was always there either on my long shoots or whenever there was a break between shootings".

No wonder then that despite her meteoric rise in Tamil cinema down the years, Sridevi remained grounded. "My mother always told me that I was an obedient and quiet child, not fussy about anything. I remember once, she was talking to a neighbor and had made me sit on the parapet wall. She went in for some reason and forgot about me. After a couple of hours she realized that I was missing. She ran out to check on me and found me sitting in the same place!!"

Sridevi became a full fledged 'Heroine" even before she became a teen, starring opposite Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan in K Balachandran's Moondru Mudichu (1976). She became a major star with Bharati Rajja's debut film Pathinaru Vayathinile (1977) Its Hindi remake Solva Sawan (1979) was her first Hindi film.

Though she was incredibly young, she was completely convincing in grown-up romantic roles. " I was too young to realize what I was doing. Whenever I had to give a romantic expression, I used to burst in peals of Laughter. K Balachandran told my parents to let me watch some good romantic films. That didn't' help and finally he gave up one day, saying that I should just keep a sad face and that would work better. So I followed orders and looked sad - trembling lips and all - the audience mistook it for intensity and adour!" she laughs out loud.

Despite her height, Sridevi looks fragile and petite. He mannerism are delicate, her hand movements controlled and her smile ready at hand... But the unassuming behavior notwithstanding, she is every inch the diva and I am somewhat wary of venturing into personal questions. However, she is fairly direct, though she doesn't like getting too personal. And she does retain her sense of humor at all times. Though her speech is free of accent, the south Indian in her slips through in the occasional "Aiyyo" all adding up to amore "real" picture. All through the photo shoot, Sridevi insists we eat something - ordering us tea, nariyal pani, tuna and cheese sandwiches. Her warm hospitality breaks the ice and put us completely at ease.

In her 40s now, Sridevi can give any starlet a run of her money. A flawless complexion, a fantastic body and looks to kill for! " I believe that if you're healthy within, it will reflect on your skin and hair. But if you eat a lot of oily, fried and junk food, all the facials in the world won't help. I try and follow on an organic diet as much as possible. Even my daughters now eat brown rice... They follow my diet not as a compulsion but because they are health - conscious even at this tender age. I eat fish but very little chicken, and when I'm at home I prefer to be vegetarian. I do exercise and though I would love to go to the gym every day, my travel schedules make that impossible. But I love my power - yoga sessions. I believe that you have to feel positive and respect yourself and that's what reflects in your looks."

When I complimented her on her toned body, she declares "My husband and my children want me to look great all the time, It is only the joy on their faces when I look beautiful that encourages me to be the way I am. They are my motivation"

Sridevi was very close to her parents and there is a renewed pain in her voice when she talks about them. "My parents were lovely people, they installed good manners in me, taught me to respect elders and always guided me. In fact the first time I was away from my parents for a long time was during the shooting of Gurudev, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja and Lamhe which were shot back - to - back, overseas. Every morning before I left for my shoot, I made sure I spoke to my parents, they called me without fail. One particular morning. I never got a call from my father and the next thing I was told that he was ill, but the truth was that he was no more... and the same thing happened at the time of my mother's death - I was away on a shoot for the filming of Judaai when she passed away"

Sridevi went against societal norms and lit her mother's funeral pyre. It's delicate question so I hesitate in putting it to her in her direct style. Sridevi answers candidly but is visibly emotional "My mother had always thought of me as her son , she used to tell me that. My lighting the funeral pyre was simply my way of paying homage to her belief in me. It was a traumatic and emotional decision but I had to do it"

Sridevi's marriage to Boney Kapoor in 1996, a married man, came as a shock to the industry and her fans across the country. Many in the film industry raised eyebrows and the media had a field day going to town about how Boney's wife raised a shindy and much more. Through it all, Sridevi maintained a stoic, dignified silence and simply retreated from the limelight to bask in the joys of family life.... Slowly, the world accepted the new Mrs. Boney Kapoor and the mud slinging died a natural death.

Once again the actor candid, though she doesn't mention Boney's earlier life "Boney came to me in 1984 to sign me to play Seema, the lead female role for Mr India. He confessed later, that he fell in love with me outright! He however did take a few years to sort out his life before formally proposing to me in 1993. I fell in love with him when I got to know the real him. It was difficult, traumatic even and it took me many years to finally accept the fact that I was destined to be with Boney. In hindsight, I only wish that I had realized and accepted his love for me sooner. I always believe in following my heart and I am glad that I did. My parents had passed away by then and my sister was shocked with my decision. But now, she shares a great relationship with my husband and is convinced that he is the best thing that ever happened to me!

The same goes for my in laws. I share a fantastic relationship with them. My mother in law adores me and I always try to pamper her because she loves to be spoilt by me. I can also never forget the support and strength I got from my sister in law Sunita (actor Anil Kapoor's wife) all through and the love I got from Boney's sister, Reena. The affectionate bond I share with Boney's youngest brother, Sanjay and his wife Maheep is also a lifeline!"

After her marriage, Sridevi took a break from movies in order to raise a family. "Jhanavi and Khushi are my life. I have adopted a balanced approach in bringing up them up. I'm neither too strict nor I do pamper them too much. My husband keeps telling me that I am the best mother ever" shows off the actor' proudly. Her daughters were present at the shoot - blessed with pleasant mannerisms and perfect diction, they were breeze to talk to, a far cry from the usual image of tantrum prone star children. Sridevi also dipped into production "I have contributed in every film of my husband's. Direction is extremely difficult and I really don't think I am cut out for it. Which is why I keep thanking my directors over and over - my success is due to their hard work."

The inherent humility in the star is an aspect of her personality that surfaced now and again throughout the time I spent talking to her. Sometime ago, she was on TV playing Malini Iyer in the serial by the same name - "I played a south Indian bahu married into a Punjabi family, which I am! I had a ball"

On the work front, though she has now been on a long sabbatical, she is still remembered for the sheer variety and number of roles she played on the Hindi film screen. Even before Solva Sawan, Sridevi had her firs brush with Hindi films when she acted as Irene, younger sister to Julie in the 1975 hit by the same name. Four years later Solva Sawan bombed, but Sridevi had been noticed for her flawless looks. Her next movie Himmatwala 1983 went on to be a super success. Sridevi became a country wide star overnight.

This was followed by Sadma (1983) which is hailed as a classic even today and remains the most definitive child-woman performance in Indian cinema. Sridevi plays an outgoing party girl Laxmi, who meets with an accident. She emerges from a coma with absolutely no memory and has the mental and physically skills of a 6 year old. It's a touching story with Laxmi being befriended by school teacher Somu (Kamal Hassan). Her third film in Bollywood, it was considered to be a bold move as it indicated a shift to arty cinema. Says the star "I have never been fully satisfied with my performances and always thought I could have done better. Whatever praise I got for the film, the credit goes to the director though I do believe that Sadma was and is one of my best films" Throughout the 1980s Sridevi starred in a galaxy of blockbusters, including Tohfa, Nagina, Mr India, Chandni and Chaalbaaz, the last which won her a Filmfare Award for her delightfully crazy capers. When I ask her which of the twins (of Chaalbaaz) does she feel closer to in real life, the prim-and-proper Anju, or the funny wicked beer guzzling toughie Manju, the actor replies smiling " My husband says I was Anju before marriage and have been Manju thereafter" In 1991, her performance in Lamhe won her the International Film Academy's Best Actress Award, "Lamhe was a very well made movie, but yes, I was sceptical about the climax - a man who loved a woman, married her daughter in the climax of the film - I argued with Yashji. But ultimately  he was the captain of the ship" Lamhe was hailed by the critics as a film beyond its timescape even though it didn't do too well at the box office.

Sridevi was also a trendsetter in her own right - being one of the first non-singing stars to lend her voice to a song in Chandni by the same name. When asked about it, she appears embarrassed and says "I felt sorry for Yashji - The song was easy for me to sing but difficult for others who had to hear my bathroom singer's voice onscreen!" Chandni was also when Sridevi got an image makeover. From a typical somewhat traditional south Indian beauty (Some critics even labeled her "Thunder Thighs" based on her appearance in Tamil films), she metamorphosed into a classy contemporary beauty with a svelte body and contoured face yet maintaining he basic Indian-ness. As in her career, she achieved this transformation by sheer dint of careful planning and hard work "I always believed in hard work, to try and give my best in whatever I did. I never had or believed in godfathers. Whatever I have achieved as an actor is due to my directors. They are the reason for my transformation"

I mull over her words as I head towards the airport. While he future in films is still fluid, Sridevi will always be remembered for what she is, an evergreen actor and the original Diva of Bollywood.

(Good Housekeeping, November 1997)