Etho deivam sathi seithathu, pethai pola vidhi seithathu!! These lines by Kannadasan are timeless, but we never thought it would ring true for the lady for whom these lines were originally written. People die at 54, yes, it happens a lot in our world. But, when some people leave us, even 54 seems to be too soon, Sridevi is one such icon.
Some say Rajesh Khanna was the first superstar of India, and though one wouldn’t want to meddle with his legacy, especially when he is no longer alive, it would be fitting to say that perhaps that title belongs more to Sridevi than anyone else. Rajesh Khanna was a superstar by any definition, but he still was an ‘outsider’ to south India. The term ‘outsider’ should not be seen as an anti-Hindi rant. It just means that Rajesh Khanna was a superstar in South India just in the way a Clint Eastwood or Sean Connery was in the 70s. The same is true for Amitabh Bachchan. But, it’s not so for Sridevi. To Tamil Nadu, she is the lady who was the best on screen pair to Kamal Haasan, sometimes Rajinikanth. To unified Andhra she is the lady who could share the screen with Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh. To Malayalam, she was perhaps the actress who they badly wanted but never could get enough of, sought after by top directors like IV Sasi. To Bollywood, she was an actress good enough to do strong roles opposite Big B, and all big stars to come after that. Her time in Indian cinema was never really up, she just chose to stay away, which is why her sudden loss seems even more shocking.
Audiences all over India can identify Sridevi not as a star of cinema in a language that they do not speak or understand, but as their own star, a star who did movies that they could watch everyday on their screens without subtitles. She connected directly to more audiences in India than any star has done before or after. That is why one feels, she is the one who should be called India’s first superstar.
There are actresses, more than actors, who have done films in most major languages across India. Aishwarya Rai for instance comes to mind, having done mostly Hindi and a handful of Tamil movies. But, all such actresses have had varying degrees of success in different industries. But, wherever Sridevi went, she conquered. She was as successful in Tamil and Telugu and Malayalam as she was in Hindi. It was as if she chose the industry she wanted to work in, and not the other way round. Just looking at the films she did; 72 in Tamil, 81 in Telugu, 72 in Hindi and 23 in Malayalam. That is nearly 250 films with an even spread over three industries. If that is not versatility, if that is not superstardom, then what is?
Twenty years after she had said bye to the industry on her own terms, the industry still wanted her badly. Ramgopal Verma wanted to make a film with her, as he said a few years back. Rajamouli wanted her as Sivagami in Bahubali. It just showed that her stardom had never faded, it had never gone away, she had just chosen to neatly fold it and put it safely at home, ad take it out only when she needed to – like she did in 2012 with English Vinglish. That’s why, at the age of 54, twenty years after the stardom had taken a backseat, even when her daughter is preparing to make a debut, the passing of Sridevi still seems to soon, we feel as if there is a lot more of this unbelievable talent that went unexplored… and it reminds us of one more evergreen line by Kannadasan ‘Sippi irukkudhu muthum irukkudhu, thirandhu parka neram illadi rajathi’. The legacy of Sridevi is immortal, but what more she had to offer, we did not have the time to see.
The Senthoora Poo of Indian cinema: Sridevi