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.