She was not just a Bollywood star. To reduce her to that label – as so many north-based Indian media outlets have done since her death on Saturday night – amounts to missing the entire point of her exceptional career: Sridevi was a true pan-Indian superstar, the only actor to dominate the country’s three largest industries, nicknamed Kollywood, Tollywood and Bollywood (which make films in the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi language respectively) while also notching up a number of works in Kannada and Malayalam cinema.
India’s patriarchal film trade is back-breakingly taxing for any woman. Sridevi’s singular achievement was that in such a scenario, she earned what no other artiste could: stardom and consistent box-office success transcending multiple state borders and language barriers. Not even the men of Indian cinema, with all the privilege their gender brings them, can put that on their resumes.
Her untimely death this weekend has united India in grief during one of the most politically divisive phases of post-Independence history.
“My inspiration is no more,” Vidya Balan, a leading Bollywood star of the present generation, wrote on Twitter on Sunday. Kollywood stalwart Kamal Haasan, Sridevi’s senior and co-star in nearly two dozen films, wrote: “Have witnessed Sridevi’s life from an adolescent teenager to the magnificent lady she became. Her stardom was well deserved…” The Hindu newspaper quoted octogenarian Kannada actor Leelavathi, who worked with the child Sridevi in the 1970s, as saying through tears: “She was a glamorous actor who grew up in front of our eyes and is now no more.”
Since news of her death broke, there has been an outpouring of tributes from fans and artists across India and politicians ranging from the president to the prime minister, cabinet ministers and chief ministers of states, a testament, if one was needed, of her all-India appeal.
Sridevi debuted as a child actor in Tamil and Malayalam cinema in the late 1960s. She was soon pursued by directors for her remarkable artistic maturity at such a young age. As early as 1970, she won a Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Artist for her role in the Malayalam film Poombatta in which she played the lead character, a child being ill-treated in her new home after her mother dies. It was the first of scores of trophies she would take home in an acting career spanning five decades, five languages, over 250 films and a brief tryst with television.
Her filmography in the 1970s was packed with Tamil and Telugu cinema, where she reigned through the 1970s and 1980s. In this period she also acted in a handful of Kannada films and almost two dozen Malayalam films. While still in her teens, she aced the role of a woman seeking revenge against the man responsible for her lover’s death in K Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (1976, Tamil), which remains one of her best-remembered performances to date.
In director Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai (1982, also Tamil) she memorably played a woman suffering from retrograde amnesia after a car accident. The film was a massive financial success and marked one of many important transitions in her career. It was remade by Mahendra in Hindi in 1983 as Sadma with the same cast, Sridevi and Kamal Haasan. Sadma drew considerable critical acclaim for both its leads and has gone on to acquire a cult following in the decades since.
Sridevi had debuted in Bollywood a few years earlier with a flop. To north Indian audiences who were at that point just discovering her, Sadma was early evidence of her incredible versatility since it came in the same year as her first Bollywood blockbuster, Himmatwala, a no-holds-barred over-the-top mainstream venture replete with song and dance numbers that would become her calling card through her initial years in this new territory.
The 1980s were for multi-tasking, the 1990s mostly devoted to Hindi cinema although she continued to do some work in other languages too. At first, in Bollywood, she was associated with loud, gaudy productions that critics derisively described as B-grade. She was already tagged as Bollywood’s first female superstar with her slew of hits, but over the years she gradually gained respectability too as she struck a balance between demanding roles and populist compulsions.
By the time she married producer Boney Kapoor in 1996 though, her films were no longer faring as well at the box office. After one final hit, the Hindi film Judaai (1997), she took a 15-year break from films. Sridevi largely avoided the spotlight during that period, but the public did not forget. In 2012, they welcomed her with open arms on her critically acclaimed return to the big screen, playing a woman constantly belittled by her husband and daughter in the Hindi film English Vinglish. She indicated her intent to sustain her pan-Indian presence with the Tamil film Puli in 2015. Her last big screen appearance was as the mother of a rape survivor in last year’s Mom.
In film industries that rarely give female stars the longevity naturally held out to equally or less talented male colleagues, Sridevi’s extraordinary combination of acting depth (in particular her comic abilities), arresting screen presence, great beauty, fluid dancing and her ease with both serious roles and flashy commercial extravaganzas gave her an iconic status that translated into box-office reliability and a golden-jubilee run. In some ways, her unparalleled career exemplifies the impossible demands we make on women before we acknowledge their talent and the reality that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be deemed worthy of half the rewards.
“Twice as good” may be an understatement in the case of Sridevi’s many gifts. As legendary as her acting and dance were her looks, especially those huge expressive eyes described aptly by one character in English Vinglish as “like two drops of coffee on a cloud of milk”.
Through all this, Sridevi remained an unconventional star, the sort who shone before the camera on film sets but seemed to recede into herself during media interactions. She was painfully shy and had a reputation for avoiding film parties like the plague. She was also a challenging subject for an interviewer. The controversies surrounding her – her relationship with and eventual marriage to an already married father of two and rumours about multiple plastic surgeries for her comeback – added to her hesitation to freely mingle with the press.
By the time I began reporting extensively on cinema, Sridevi was already on her film hiatus, but I met her on a couple of occasions – once at a press conference for her TV show Malini Iyer in 2004 and again, around the same time, when she surfaced as the brand ambassador of Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women, Manish Jha’s nerve-wracking feature on a fictional Indian village that has killed off all its baby girls.
Standing outside a secluded preview theatre in Delhi, looking statuesque in dark trousers and a simple top, she pushed herself to speak to the gathered media. I remember as a young journalist being slightly taken aback at the reticence of this woman who I had foolishly assumed would be a chatterbox based on her screen roles. Yet it was evident too that she was not being snooty or deliberately difficult with me. She was soft-spoken, down to earth and willing to speak, but despite her good intentions, seemed unable to extensively articulate her thoughts about female foeticide.
From all accounts, she was not overtly cerebral in her approach to roles either. In an interview in 2015, English Vinglish director Gauri Shinde told me Sridevi was not conscious of her widely celebrated looks while shooting and had a way of surrendering to her character, becoming the person she was playing. “There’s no theory, no method, no asking 100 questions, like ‘what do you think Shashi (the character’s name) would have done two years ago?’ It was there in the writing, and she absorbed it. There was not that much talking and theorising.”
Intuition and instinct appear to have been Sridevi’s guiding lights through her professional life. Her death is a blow not only because she is one of the brightest stars in the history of Indian cinema, but because it was obvious from her last three films that there was so much more acting she had left in her to give.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.