This is one I didn’t expect. I think it might be so much of a shock that I’m not really feeling it yet? I’m strangely numb right now. Sridevi, at age 54, seemingly in perfect health, her daughter not yet launched, has died. Died as she lived, with great fame, but also great privacy.
Sridevi is one of the last great female stars to grow up onscreen. The public has known her, and known her well, since she was 4 years old. She started in Tamil films, where the audience has always known her best and cared for her most. But at age 11, she had her Hindi debut in Julie playing the heroine’s little sister.
Two years later, she became a leading actress at age 13 with a phenomenal performance in Moodru Mudichu. After years of success in the southern industries, she broke through as a Hindi star with Himmatwala at age 19. And from then on her career hopped between languages, beloved through out India for a variety of performances in a variety of films.
And yet, through all of this, there was a certain distance. Sridevi was not someone the public, the media, or even many of her costars were allowed to really know. Her marriage at age 33 to producer Boney Kapoor was completely unexpected and sent shock waves not just through the general public, but even those within the film industry who would be expected to have known it was coming. An earlier marriage to Mithun Chakraborty is merely rumored, not clear as to whether or not it occurred or under what circumstances. Despite being between two of the biggest stars of the day.
And then for 15 years she disappeared from the public eye. Lived a life as a wife and mother somehow within India and yet invisible to the rest of the country. Until she returned with English/Vinglish, as bright and sparkling onscreen as ever, that magic had merely been in hiding, not extinguished.
How is this possible? How can an actress who the whole country, the whole world even, watched grow up onscreen, loved from 4 to 54, who was so shining and stunning and impossible to ignore, how can she have lived her life in complete privacy?
And yet, she did. Surrounded by scandals, and yet untouched by them. The “Sridevi” we saw onscreen never felt like the Sridevi who married an already married man, who was forced to do love scenes at age 13, who may have been married to and divorced from one of the leading actors in the industry in her 20s. Somehow her screen image was bigger than all of that, she was bigger than herself.
She was, truly, so big. The biggest Indian actress possibly of all time. Because she really was an “Indian” actress. She didn’t just crossover between industries, she advanced and defeated them. Where ever she went, she was loved. And loved equally, there was no need for the Tamil industry to feel jealous of her Hindi success, or the Hindi industry to be unhappy when she went back south for a film. She was large enough to encompass all languages, all industries, all heroes and all villains and all directors and all scriptwriters and all of the whole wonderful fantasy that is Indian film, north to south. She was so big that Sridevi onscreen ultimately eclipsed even Sridevi offscreen.
In the end, there were two Sridevis. The dancing perfect charming sparkling impossible not to love siren that we saw onscreen. And the modest quiet soft-spoken woman in real life.
And maybe that’s why I am not as sad as I expected. That modest quiet soft-spoken woman is dead. And that is a tragedy, a tragedy for her young daughters, for her husband, for her extended family, for all of them. I am sad that Jhanvi will not have her mother there at the premiere of her first film. I am sad that her stepchildren Arjun and Anshula will never have a chance to reconcile with her. I am sad that her husband has been left strangely twice widowed in the course of 5 years. I am even sad for her relative whose wedding she was attending in Dubai whose joy will always be a little over-shadowed with grief.
But I am not sad for myself. I never knew that Sridevi, the quiet modest mother. And the Sridevi I know has not died. Sridevi dancing across the screen, smiling with her eyes, flirting and winking, jingling her bangles, breaking my heart with a twist of her lips, that Sridevi can never die. She will live on so long as her movies are playing somewhere, little girls are dancing to her songs, little boys are falling in love with her smile, and men and women who grew up with her are feeling young again as they watch her. That Sridevi was so much, so big, so wonderful, that she cannot die.