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Cinematic Revival

May 15, 2013

The elusive and legendary actress Sridevi speaks to us about her comeback, motherhood and her iconic Bollywood status.

At the age of 49, Sridevi looks stunning. She is the proud mother of daughters Jhanvi and Khushi and proud wife of producer extraordinaire Boney Kapoor (who brought Mr. India [1987] to the screen starring Sridevi alongside her brother-in-law Anil Kapoor). To lovers of Indian cinema, whether from the South where her career began or from the North where it further thrived, Sridevi has given iconic and inimitable performances. Pretty much born with it, her first role was in 1969 when she was just six.

She broke through to the silver screen at the age of 13, as a heroine in the Tamil super hit film 16 Vayathinile (1977) which means “At the age of 16,” acting alongside South Indian superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. The films that took her from South Indian cinema to North Indian cinema, now Bollywood, were Tamil film Moondram Pirai (1982) and Sadma (1983) its Hindi remake, where she played a beautiful, child-like autistic woman. Most Bollywood fans remember her role as the snake woman in Nagina (1986).

A superstar had materialized in Hindi cinema. She went on to work with the late Yash Chopra in the blockbuster film Chandni (1989).

Her voluptuous curves, graceful dancing and engaging screen presence, as well as the fact that she’s a director’s actress, made her the darling of Indian cinema. And when she made her comeback in 2012, audiences showed her the same love. They payed tribute to her at the 2011 International Indian Film Academy Awards in Toronto and a buzzing red carpet and standing ovation welcomed her at the world premiere of her latest film, English Vinglish during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

On a personal note, I’ve watched Sridevi in awe since her debut in Thunaivan, to her films that formed my African and British childhood, like Kavikkuyil (1977), Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), Priya (1978) and Meendum Kokila (1981). Her career is truly impressive, to say the least, which made getting an exclusive, long chat with her a true privilege and a career high for me. She was every bit as vivacious as I expected and here is what transpired when we finally had our tête-à-tête.

Ashanti OMkar: I’ve been following your work from the early Tamil films you were in, especially Johnny. your tally of films is perhaps over 250 to date?
Sridevi:
Well, this is something I’m very happy to hear and very glad. I’m flattered and really thankful to my fans and people who have trust in me. Johnny is a fave film of mine, as I played a very different character of a singer. It was quite difficult to bring out the dignifi ed presence that was necessary, so the credit goes to Balu Mahendra, my director. It was great fun working with Rajini. When I think about it and the numbers you’ve thrown at me, I’m wowed. I’ve done more than 35 fi ms with Kamal Haasan and maybe over 20 with Rajinikanth.

AO: In the much lauded English Vinglish you worked with both Amitabh Bachchan (Big B) and Southern star Ajith Kumar simultaneously, in their cameo appearances?
S: Absolutely. Sharing the screen with Big B is an honour, and I was so looking forward to it. Balki (director of Paa and producer of English Vinglish) told me he was doing it and I was really happy. With Ajith Kumar, it only took a minute for him to say yes when my husband and I asked him. I cherish this so much, on top of the fact that I never felt that I had a gap of 15 years from a fi lm unit. I was quite comfortable, thanks to Gauri (Shinde), my director. She scheduled it so my kids wouldn’t be away from me and worked on every detail meticulously.

AO: Will we see you gracing the silver screen more, now that you’ve made the comeback?
S: It all depends on how much more the audience wants to see of me and the type of films available to me. I am absolutely selective with scripts and I was a child star, so my priority is to enjoy life now, rather than doing more films. I have no hurry at all and want to continue to take it easy and really enjoy my family, my kids and my house. Should a script excite me, then I will consider it.

AO: Comedic timing, like acting, has always come naturally to you. Is there something you tap into, that helps you achieve on-screen excellence?
S:
I don’t know, because that’s what my husband says — that I’m a joker, a big joker. Even Gauri says this and anything I would say, would make her laugh. I believe that more than anything, the eyes are very, very important for an artiste, whether a hero or heroine. To play any character, most of it should speak from the eyes, rather than the lips.

AO: No one can believe your age and you are still the classic, radiant beauty I saw as a child. What are your beauty secrets?
S:
Nothing. Just be happy and embrace a healthy lifestyle. Yes, exercise is important and the “no pain no gain” adage is true. Keep to regular times, do not eat the wrong foods, and most importantly, keep a good frame of mind and be positive. I’m a vegetarian, which also helps a lot.

AO: What strikes you as the biggest change in the making of cinema, since you were last working within this world?
S:
My God, the technology has gone somewhere else! I was astounded also at the technical expertise that all the crew imbibed.

AO: Fabulous linguistic skills must be yours, being one of the early Pan-Indian actresses.
S:
Well, I’ve lived in Tamil Nadu, my mother tongue is Telugu and I then married and settled in Bombay and have had to learn Hindi. [I’ll] be speaking to my team and others in Hindi. I do hope that my Hindi is good [chuckles].

AO: you paint?
S:
Well yes. My daughter is a big fan of Michael Jackson and I am too. I did a painting of him for her room. I’m very happy too, to make this for her. I do a lot of painting and only took a hiatus due to English Vinglish. I was very happy when my paintings were sold at Christie’s Fine Art Auctions for charity.

AO: Share your take on love.
S:
[Laughs] Love is not just about sharing Magnum ice cream, but also entails long drives and small things like being at home, watching movies and chilling out with the kids. Those magical, simple moments. My family is love. I won’t travel without them and they’re my pillar, my strength. Even my favourite city is wherever I am with my family.

AO: Do you have a favourite designer?
S:
Of course, I’ve worked with so many great designers and everyone has their own style and method. I love to wear all the designers, but Manish Malhotra is very close to me and is a dear friend. We share a great rapport.

AO: Is Hollywood calling?
S:
Hollywood? [Laughs]. I just did English Vinglish and am very happy and content here. I never want to say anything which is not happening now. But I do adore Meryl Streep and Will Smith.

AO: Some fi nal words of wisdom?
S:
I love you all. Whatever I am today, it is only because of you. When I see your enthusiasm, devotion and affection, I feel so thankful to God.

BY ASHANTI OMKAR /  PUBLISHED IN THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE, JANUARY 2013

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