Sridevi – A fan’s tribute

By Saswat Pattanayak

There used to be something sacred about Book Fairs.

Because I was raised without gods, books were the only things I ever worshipped. In their power alone, I believed. And so, the Book Fair had to be the biggest annual festival for someone like me; the most awaited, indescribable fortnight of joy, every year!

When I stepped into my teen years, I realized there was also something secretly romantic about the book fair. Or, sacredly romantic. Book Fairs allowed me to explore the unseen. They let me tap into the uncharted journeys. They let me romance with the fictitious characters. They let me mingle with the stars. And they made me see Sridevi. She was the first woman I fell in instant love that was adorning the cover of a book (the first edition of “Limca Book of Records”) when I stumbled upon it at the 1990 Bhubaneswar Book Fair. And she was no ordinary woman; she was the goddess of Indian cinema.

The reasons why I was so awestruck by her photo were obvious to me. Growing up, my sister and I were not allowed to watch movies in the theaters. And my family those days did not own a television set either. So my initiation to Hindi cinema was withheld until I had graduated high school. I would never know if it was because my parents genuinely believed it was immoral for children to watch movies, or simply because we could not afford the tickets. Or, a bit of both.

So, seeing Sridevi on a glossy, hardbound, laminated cover of a companion book to my quizzing days was an unforgettable moment. But what the book informed me about her left me even more impressed. According to India’s first annual reference book (a worthy spin-off of Guinness World Records), Sridevi merited the cover because of her stature. In a male-dominated film industry of India, she was the highest paid actress, who succeeded in raising the bar for women, and received higher amounts than most of her male colleagues. I had never been to a matinee show, but if there was a Matinée idol for me, it was Sridevi.

Its perhaps strange that I was in love with an actress without even seeing her films. But it had to do with my personal journey into the world of cinema.

And, the prelude to it; I remember it was around my 10th birthday. Those days we used to live in Cuttack. My father had wondered aloud if he should break his discipline and take us kids to a new movie titled, “Mr. India”, about which he had heard rave reviews. My uncle apparently tried, but failed to procure tickets for the screening, as the movie was running to packed theaters. That film was quite a rage those days, and my only brush with Mr. India was in turning over to the film posters printed on back pages of daily newspapers. The posters were in black and white. And I could care less about the guy playing Mr. India. It was however the leading woman of the film who had clearly captivated me!

So three years after my unfulfilled desire to see her on big screens, when I stole a glance at the cover of this innocent hardcover at the book fair, I did not think twice. Someday soon, I shall get to see a Sridevi movie, I told myself.

Luckily, I did not have to wait for long.

That summer, my father was invited to visit the hinterlands of Orissa as a delegate to raise awareness about environment. I accompanied him on a long bus trip to the stunning Simlipal forest. For me, the most anticipated part was the trip itself, because of the VHS tape that was played on the trip. Sridevi in, and, as “Chandni” enthralled me no end. It was an unforgettable movie in so many ways, of course. But for me personally, it was my Mr. India fantasy coming true. I could care less about Vinod Khanna or Rishi Kapoor. It was Sridevi on my mind. Her eyes, her bangles, her sarees, her smile, her dances, her emotional moments, her relationship quotient – I had no idea who Yash Chopra was. But I was sure I knew who Sridevi was, and that she was going to give life to the story. And she did.

The trip to Simlipal with my parents turned out to be the most memorable one I had made in my life. I saw my father (and his environmentalist friends) addressing large gatherings of people in the villages, to emphasize and extend support towards conservation of the biosphere. I witnessed the splendor of the precious flora and fauna that characterized Simlipal. My father had gifted me my first camera for the trip and using that, I captured the eternal beauty of the Barehipani Falls, the second highest waterfalls in of India. Almost two decades after this trip, Simlipal was finally admitted to the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves (as one of 10 such sites from India).

Like at the book fair, my secret romance with Sridevi continued during the journey to Simlipal. Following the trip, I did not feel it was necessary to mention to anyone how much I liked her, considering she was anyway the mega star everyone seemed to adore. Only during a bout of sibling rivalry with my sister and her friends, when they detailed how Madhuri Dixit (post-Tezaab) was the number one actress in films, did I feel the need to make my admiration for Sridevi public! They were the majority, and Ek Do Teen was a national anthem by then. Film magazines were quickly writing off Sridevi. So I felt like I had to defend her. And I detested Madhuri Dixit for that, for rest of her career. For me, Sridevi was Navratilova and Madhuri was Steffi Graf. And I never really liked Graf for interrupting my reason for watching Tennis.

Over the next several years, I went on to watch Chaalbaaz, Khuda Gawah, Roop Ki Raani Choron Ka Raja, Gumrah, Chandramukhi, Laadla, and Judaai, most of which were at my friend’s house using video rentals. I also managed to finally watch Mr. India as I did Guru, Lamhe, Sadma, Himmatwala, Inquilab, Nagina, Aakhree Raasta, Janbaaz, Karma, Waqt ki Awaz, etc. One peculiar thing about these movies was I did not see them for the performances of the male superstars who were paired with Sridevi. For me, Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty, and Govinda were insignificant. Although I did find Mithun to be the most suitable leading man for Sridevi, so much so I wanted both of them to stay happily ever after, like they did in their movies.

Sridevi was the star of the 80’s and the 90’s. And those were also my decades. I rarely relate to the present times. So when Sridevi made a comeback a few years ago, I was not really excited about it. During the 80’s/90’s, even as the leading actors of her movies were phenomenally popular, I used to conveniently overlook them entirely. It was only Sridevi that I was focusing on. By contrst, in her comeback years, Sridevi finally got the kind of roles she deserved as protagonist and she excelled in both English Vinglish and Mom. And yet, owing to my bias of locating her as one of the forces behind my life’s best decades, I somehow managed to overlook her in these movies, this time around.

So when I received a text message on WhatsApp last night indicating Sridevi’s demise, I did not know how to react. What is an appropriate response to such a news? Amrita asked me in the morning if I was crying last night. Strangely I was not. But as I am writing this, I am full of tears. I am not an expert on the life and career of the great Bollywood actress Sridevi. I am an expert on my own life. And so far as I could recall, Sridevi featured majorly in it. I was immediately transported to my school days. The days of innocence, of anticipation, of dreams. Sridevi was possibly the first woman in my life I fantasized about. And strangely, it was not at a sexual level. As a matter of fact, I was not even attracted towards her. I did not find her sexy or glamorous. I did not objectify her at any point in life.

But I was just in awe of her. I was simply amazed by her. I was just so in admiration of her talents, her capacities, her ability to rule over the entire film industry as a woman who deserved only the best of recognition. She was a trendsetter in everything she did. When she danced in the rain, when she enacted double roles, when she wore the white saree, or when she changed into record number of outfits, when she defined mischief through her smiles, described anticipation through her eyes, depicted grief through her actions, shattered stereotypes through the roles developed only for her (as Yash Chopra attested to time and again), when she essayed a village girl as effortlessly she did the modern working woman… Nothing seemed impossible for Sridevi when it came to portrayals – the range of emotions, expressions and actions that she displayed remain unmatched to this day.

She was the top seeded actress not only in Hindi film industry, but also in Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu cinemas. No actor – male or female – anywhere in the world, had as much reach across multiple major languages, as she had. If she had over 70 Hindi films to her credit, she also had over 70 Tamil films, and over 80 Telugu films to her credit. She was not a crossover actor. She was reigning over cinema industries of four major languages – all at the same time. She was the only superstar of cinema, the only superwoman among celebrities. There was, and is only one Sridevi. And she shall continue to shine like a star on the sky.

While I shall happily continue to remain, her fan.


Padmavati, Karni Sena and the crisis of Hinduism

By Saswat Pattanayak

The outrage against Karni Sena is entirely misplaced. These hooligans will eventually be forgiven by their gods because they know not what they do. The real dangerous elements however are those who claim to know better, and yet fervently endorse Padmavati – whether as a fictional character, a historical figure, or as a movie script awaiting screening.

In all shape, way, and form, Rani Padmini legacy is a textbook instance of Islamophobia. If the practice of Sati was/is justified by the Hindus as the chaste wife syndrome, the practice of Jauhar which Padmini was said to have opted for (historical account of which is heavily disputed), was even one step further – such mass suicides by Hindu women had nothing to do with love (sic!) for their deceased husbands, rather they had to die so that Muslim men couldn’t touch them.

That Bhansali would actually make Padmini the glorified protagonist of this movie – and publicly assuage the fears of a casteist bunch in a regressive society, by comforting their so-called “Rajput Pride” – speaks volumes about the nostalgic fixation of feudal Indian society with remnants of their “royal families”. Instead of revisiting these occupiers of palaces as the parasites without any constitutional locus standi to claim honorifics, Hindus continue to glamorize these families who trace their family trees to this Padmini woman, who certainly was not the only one to have self-immolated herself anyway. In an era of democracy and purported egalitarianism, the Indian filmmakers and the public alike continue to stay obsessed with oppressive and entitled women as heroic figures.

In fact, the only bright side to the entire Padmavati movie saga has been the Karni Sena. The only reason so many liberal Hindus are so riled up against them is because they are failing to cover up the true colors of Hinduism which are on full public display, thanks to the hooligans of “Shri Rajput Karni Sena”. And in a bid to dissociate themselves from this Sena in order to save the “image” of their country, they are either discrediting this Sena as a “fringe group”, or they are outrightly rejecting Padmavati as a historical chapter.
However, just as Karni Sena is an offshoot of BJP, Hindu terrorism is an offshoot of the Hindus. None of these are “fringe” elements. There is a direct causal relationship between a majoritarian religion and its manifestations just as there is one between a political line and its deviations.

Just as sexism is inherent to patriarchy even as sexist behavior is not apparent in every action of a patriarch; just as xenophobia is immanent in nationalism even as irrational hatred is not always discernible in the patriot; just as conservatism is integral to the fascists even as all their political positions are not necessarily reactionary – so also, intolerance, vandalism and terrorism are permanent features of Hindusim, even as occasionally the devout Hindu appears to be preaching “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”.

Padmavati debate is not about free speech and artistic freedom. It is certainly not about historical fact-checks. Majority of decent people in India are not angered by Karni Sena because they believe in peace and non-violence. The good Hindus are angry at the bad Hindus (depending on which side one identifies with) because of the embarrassment such vandalisms are causing the religion itself. The sanctity of the great religion needs to be protected at all costs, after all. The problem however is, neither the Bhansali fans nor the Karni Sainiks think of themselves as the Bad Hindus. The question then is, does a Bad Hindu even exist? It is as obvious as the question: does Hindu terrorism exist?

The denial is legendary and it did not start with a right-wing party that is currently enjoying political power. The externalization of the bad guys from Hinduism by calling them fringe or corrupt or evil is a deliberate ploy to sanitize the religion of the possibility that it could be intrinsically capable of producing not just the good guys but also the bad ones. Hindus simply have been failing to grasp that the same religion which produces saints/babas/gurus/swamis/maatas also is capable of producing terrorists and vandals. Even more so, that, most, if not all of these godmen and saints are themselves terrorists and vandals. And when they are not exposed to be thus, they are busy inspiring their followers to attain that ideal.

Padmavati is not just another movie. It is potentially posing a challenge to the long-held beliefs of the religious. Hindus hold such beliefs sacrosanct and so quite naturally they are peeved at the trailers (if anyone is still attacking these people as folks who are yet to see the movie, as though to imply that vandalism should be tolerated after a week of the movie’s release, unless someone exclusively wants to ensure that Bollywood makes its week’s big earnings first…).

Angry Hindus have always beaten the heck out of those who oppose their beliefs. They kill atheists every now and then on the streets. They shoot to death progressive journalists when they express fearless opinions. They beat up Dalits for asserting themselves and even for skinning dead cows. They murder Muslims who are rumored to be eating beef. They thrash university students who express dissent. They slap and kick anyone who doesn’t stand up when the national anthem plays. They assault and attack whenever they feel like their sentiments are hurt. Goes without saying, that not every Hindu kills Gauri Lankesh. Not every Hindu kills Mohammad Akhlaq. And not every Hindu destroys cinema theaters following movies like Padmavati. But that does not mean that Hindu terrorism does not exist. Quite the contrary – those who deny Hindu terrorism are the ones who abet it.

So far as the Hindus go, there is nothing wrong or extraordinary in their reactions to Padmavati. They are so addicted to their religion, that when they are drunk in it, terrorism is all the truth that eventually surfaces, in all its honesty.

(Discussion on Facebook)

Sahir Ludhianvi – Communist and a Poet

By Saswat Pattanayak

It was more than a coincidence that Sahir Ludhianvi was born on an International Women’s Day. His concern and respect for women was as much personal as it was political. For him, no one – and nothing – was more important than his mother Sardar Begum. Resenting her husband’s feudal properties, his mother had left that household and raised Sahir on her own. And Sahir grew up as an organic revolutionary against landlords and burgeoning capitalism of that era. And more importantly, as a progressive poet deeply aware of the capitalistic exploitations of women and the working class.

An avid reader of Marx, Sahir early on was influenced by Faiz and Josh – prominent communist poets of that era. His early compositions included “Jahaan Mazdoor Rehte Hai” [Where Workers Reside]. In 1937, Sahir joined All India Students Federation (AISF), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI) – committed to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles. He was expelled from both the colleges (in Ludhiana and Lahore) that he attended, due to his political activisms. Sajjad Zaheer’s Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) would subsequently provide Sahir his cultural platform, to express himself as a socialist poet rejecting ‘art for the sake of art’.

As a revolutionary poet, Sahir wrote “Kuchh Baatein” [Some Issues]:
“Des ke adbaar ki baatein karey
Ajnabi sarkar ki baatein karey
Agli duniya ke fasaaney chhoddkar
Is jahannumzaar ki baatein karey”

[Let us talk of the nation’s tribulations
Talk of the colonial power impositions
Why bother with heaven’s splendors
Let us talk of the hell we possess]

As a communist poet, Sahir wrote the poignant verses “Aurat ne janam diya mardoen ko, mardone ne use bazaar diya” [Women gave birth to men; men made them commodities]. His analysis of feudalism/capitalism manifested itself in the splendid tribute to Taj Mahal, full of scorn borne out of a materialistic outlook that defined his work.

He wrote,
“Anginat logoen ne duniya mein mohabbat ki hai
Kaun kehta hai ke saadiq na tha un ke jazbe
Lekin un ke liye tasahir ka samaan nahin
Kyon ki woh log bhi apni hi tarah muflis the”

[Countless peoples in our world have showered love in abundance
Who can claim their heartfelt love ever lacked sincere affections
But they lacked the means of advertisement, of crude exhibitions
After all, they were like you and I: submitted by birth to cruel situations]

Sahir’s secular credentials were unmatched. An avowed atheist, he rejected the organized religions as impediments on the path to attaining a sense of humanity. Addressing an abandoned child without a social identity, Sahir wrote:

“Accha hai abhi tak tera kuchh naam nahni hai
Tujh ko kisi mazhab se koi kaam nahni hai
Jis ilm ne insaan ko taqseem kiya hai
Is ilm ka tujh par koi ilzam nahni hai”

[A bundle of joy you are, sans a given name
Disconnected from religions, that’s your gain
Religious texts have only divided humanity
My child! So far they couldn’t attack your sanity]

As a communist poet, he was not just dedicated to women’s empowerment and secular values, he also was a peacenik who refused to believe in sanctities of geographical borders that justify militarism. He wrote –

“Khoon apna ho ya paraaya ho
Nasl-e-adam ka khoon hai aakhir
Jung mashriq mein ho ki magrib mein
Amn-e-alam ka khoon hai aakhir
Bomb gharoen par giren ya sarhad par
Rooh-e-ta’amir jakhm khaati hai
Khet apne jalein ki auroen ke
Jis’t faakoen se tilmilaati hai”

[Shed our blood, or theirs
Lives lost are of human race
War on the East or against the West
Casualty is troubled peace
Bomb our land, or across the borders
Afflicted are souls under construction
Homeless our people, or theirs
Suppressed is oppressed expression]

It was his internationalism that was recognized in the Soviet Union and his commitment to humanist values remain unchanged till the end of his life. In 1961, when Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by CIA, Sahir would protest and leave behind a haunting masterpiece, like none other –

“Zulm ki baat hi kya, zulm ki aukaat hi kya
Zulm bas zulm hai aagaz se anjaam talak
Khoon phir khoon hai, sau shakl badal sakta hai
Aisi shakley ki mitao toh mitaaye na baney
Aise sholey, ki bujhao toh bujhaaye na baney
Aisey naarey ki dabaao toh dabaaye na baney”

[Injustice can only do so much
Capable of nothing much
But the blood can take many shape
Shapes that are permanent
Inextinguishable Embers
And indomitable slogans]

Sahir’s dream coincided with that of a revolutionary who is capable of imagining not just a world without borders, but also a world without prison cells – a song that is so relevant today in light of sedition charges routinely applied to silence independent thinkers of the society Sahir once had sought to liberate.

He wrote –
“Jis subah ke khaatir jug jug se hum sab mar mar kar jeete hai
Jis subah ke amrut ki dhuun mein hum zahar ke pyaale peete hai
In bhookhi pyaasi ruhoen par ek din to karam pharmayegi
woh subah kabhi toh aayegi…

Manhoos samaaji dhaancho mein jab julm na paale jaayenge
Jab haath na kaate jaayenge jab sar na uchhale jaayenge
Jailoen ke bina jab duniya ki sarkaar chalaayi jaayegi
Woh subah hum hi se aayegi”

[For the dawn, that for ages, we nurtured with sacrifices
For that morning of nectars, have we not consumed poisons
These impoverished souls will finally be rewarded
And such a dawn, shall one day be ushered in…

As crimes cease to be structural givens of societies
Justice no longer served with torture, death penalties
A new world needs no oppressive prison
We shall usher in such a new dawn!]

As a communist poet, like Neruda, Sahir was close to the women of his life. Since none of his relationship could be formalized, and he died shortly after his mother’s demise whom he loved endlessly, he remained much misunderstood in his personal life. Many criticized him as an egotist megalomaniac seeking attention. But Sahir remained indifferent to both adulation and brickbats.

In 1971, when he was awarded with the prestigious Padma Shri, he told his close friend and fellow progressive poet Jan Nisar Akhtar, “Yaar Jan Nisar, ab sarkar ko tumhe bhi Padma Shri se nawaazna chahiye” [Jan Nisar, the government should now honor you with a Padma Shri as well].
Jan Nisar, amused, asked Sahir, why [“Bhala aisa kyoun”]?
Sahir wryly replied, “Ab yeh zillat mujh akele se bardaasht nahni hoti.” [I cannot bear this embarrassment alone.]


[All translations by Saswat Pattanayak]

More translation of Sahir’s poetry –

Fellow Decent Humans

Taj Mahal

Radical Child

Giving Back