As part of the pre-release promotions of English Vinglish (2012), Sridevi dropped in at our office and led to overcrowding in the conference hall. Flanked by director Gauri Shinde and producer R Balki, she talked about staging a big screen comeback after 15 years, wearing cotton saris for the film and making laddoos. True to her reputation, her answers were brief even though she chatted happily. When I asked what had kept her busy all these years, she was prompt to mention her two daughters, Janhvi and Khushi. When prodded to talk about her life beyond the domestic bliss, she mentioned her love for “travelling” and dabbling in painting.
Sridevi’s last film before English Vinglish was Judaai (1997). It was apparent that after ruling the big screen in the 80s and 90s, she was enjoying her life away from the spotlight and public scrutiny. Motherhood came as a welcome break and she embraced it. She always appeared happy chatting about her husband, daughters and the time they spent together.
Next, I met her last June at her residence, ahead of Mom’s release. This time, I got the opportunity to have a lengthier conversation with the actor, who was called “the first female superstar” of Hindi cinema. Quite unlike her glamorous screen outings or her stylish appearances at fashion and entertainment shows, she was in track pants and flip-flops as anyone lounging at home would. Her hair was carelessly tied in a big bun on top of her head and she was wearing pointy glasses. That, somehow, made her appear vulnerable. There was an unbelievable innocence about her. No wonder, she has been referred to as “child-woman” during her early years in the industry.
During the interview, she patiently responded to all my questions, with a friendly smile. As a journalist, I kept hoping for more detailed answers — in-depth ones that would give me an insight into the superstar who had just acted in her 300th movie, Mom. Her reputation of being a fiercely private person, stopped me from probing her too much. But I was curious to know how she managed to completely transform herself once the camera was switched on. With her trademark nonchalance, she said: “If I am going to be the same (in front of the camera), they would pack my bags and say: ‘Aap ghar baitho (you sit at home)’.”
Though she was very casual about it, all through her career her co-actors and directors have expressed deep admiration over the way she metamorphosed herself — became Hawa Hawai, Nagin, bad-ass Manju or housewife Shashi Godbole. Emotional after her demise, Rajinikanth, her long-time friend, spoke effusively about this. “In front of camera and behind the camera, there are two Sridevis. Behind the camera she is very unassuming…In front of the camera she’s like fire, an electric power would pass.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a call from Janhvi. Even as the actor addressed Janhvi’s concerns (that’s what it sounded like to me), she kept on affectionately calling her daughter “Raja”. After Janhvi hung up, I wanted to confirm the news of her impending debut. The beaming mother assured me that when the right times comes they would share the news. When I asked her about the advice she would give to Janhvi, she replied: “All I wish to say is that once she joins this profession, she should be able to handle both success and failure.”
By now, Janhvi’s debut film, Dhadak, has already been announced with much fanfare by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. Currently, its shooting is underway, and the first look of the movie looks promising. Having entered the industry at the age of 4 as a child actor and witnessing a fair deal of ups, downs, accolades and criticisms during her career that spanned 50 years, Sridevi must have told her daughters about how to cope with failure.
Yet, had she ever prepared her daughters for a personal setback that her going away would cause? Or, the unsavoury curiosity that would surround such a tragedy?