Six years ago, Indian film buffs packed cinemas to watch the engaging English Vinglish, the comeback picture of the Indian actress known only as Sridevi, returning to the big screen after a 15-year hiatus.
At her peak, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sridevi had been Bollywood’s reigning queen. In a male-dominated industry, where women were usually relegated to supporting roles as objects of male desire, she was a rare actress with the pulling power to carry a film alone. Her success was impressive given that, until her 20s, Sridevi — a south Indian — did not speak a word of Hindi, the language of Bollywood films.
In English Vinglish, Sridevi played a middle-aged Indian housewife determined to reclaim her dignity by mastering English, after being mocked by her family for not speaking the language. It was clear she had lost none of the grace, charm or comic timing that had won over fans of her more than 300 movies in five Indian languages.
Many hoped it would be the opening scene of a prolonged second act for a talented performer whose range encompassed rollicking physical comedy, subtle emotion, fragile vulnerability and an unparalleled ability to connect with audiences. But it was not to be. Sridevi, 54, died suddenly in Dubai last weekend, leaving India in mourning.
“She had the quality of a true star,” said Shubhra Gupta, a film critic and author of 50 Films that Changed Bollywood. “She lit up the screen. Whether she was truly awful or truly brilliant, all you could see was her. She reached out and you wanted to reach back.”
Born in 1963 in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Sridevi debuted in a Tamil-language religious film when she was four years old and later appeared as a child actor in films produced in the regional languages Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu.
As a teenager, she was promoted to leading lady, cast as heroines opposite some of the south Indian film industry’s biggest stars.
Two decades later she had her Bollywood breakthrough with the films Himmatwala, a frothy romance, and Sadma, a drama about a young woman who loses her memory after an accident and finds herself trapped in a brothel.
Her show-stealing role as a feisty newspaper reporter in Mr India earned her Rs1.1m, which in 1987 was the highest fee ever paid to an Indian actress. The offbeat science-fiction fantasy and cult classic is now best remembered for Sridevi’s outlandish dance in the musical number “Hawa Hawaii”, and her Charlie Chaplin impression.
In person, Sridevi — a great natural beauty with her enormous eyes, round face and full lips — was shy, reserved and dignified. Film journalists recall her as an exasperating interviewee, unwilling to open up or emote about her personal experiences. But when the cameras rolled, she came to life through her characters, winning a reputation for her rapid recall of dialogue and ability to deliver near-perfect takes.
“She bloomed on screen,” says Ms Gupta. “When she came on the set, she was like a different person. When she switched on, she enveloped the screen — and you — in an embrace.”
A gifted mimic, she had no hesitation in hamming up her acting in the melodramatic, almost operatic style that characterised Hindi films of the era. In the 1986 film Nagina, for example, she took on the role of a shape-shifting snake woman seeking to avenge the death of her spouse — performing an exotic snake dance.
When offered the chance, she could also deliver standout performances in a more subtle, naturalistic style. Substantial female roles were written for her, including the double roles in 1989’s Chaalbaaz, in which she played identical-looking but radically different twin sisters separated at birth, and Lahme (1991), where she played a mother and daughter, who are dealing with a man who has feelings for both.
“She was a consummate actress, who could deliver what ever the director wanted her to do,” Ms Gupta says. “She could make you laugh, she could make you cry and everything else in between.”
In 1996, Sridevi married the film producer Boney Kapoor and stepped out of the limelight to raise her two daughters, one of whom is due to make her film debut this year. After English Vinglish, she starred in 2017’s release Mom as a mother out to avenge her daughter’s death.
But her untimely death has left her fans feeling there was much still to be done. “The film industry had cracked only 1 per cent of her potential,” says Ms Gupta. “She was just waiting for the great role to come.”