By Shekhar Shastri
LEXINGTON, MA–I met Sridevi many years back, on the sets of the TV serial, ‘Malini Iyer’. My wife Vanita and I were visiting Mumbai and Basheer Ali, my cinematographer friend called us over to the studio, where he was shooting the TV serial. Many years earlier, Basheer and I had made one film together of which I had scripted the screenplay.
While we were waiting on the sets, my mind flew to Sridevi’s wild ‘Hawa Hawai’ and Chaplin-esque incarnations in ‘Mr. India’ and then to her dancing to the evergreen wedding song, ‘Mere Haathon Mein’ in ‘Chandni’. Yes, she defined blockbuster, however, I was not quite convinced yet.
Just then Sridevi arrived on the sets as a traditional Tamil Malini Iyer, which immediately transported me to her memorable portrayal as Kokila singing Ilayaraja’s song ‘Chinnanchiru Vayathil’ from Tamil film, ‘Meendum Kokila’. Poet asks, ‘Is there a necklace that can be worn around the neck that is more precious than you?’ From head to toe, Sridevi looked like a sparkling necklace; such stunning beauty can envelope anyone into a romance with life.
Just as we were watching her speechlessly, she walked over to us, looked at Vanita and said, “You are so beautiful.”
Vanita responded, “You too.” While I squirmed at my wife’s instant response, Sridevi glowed with a quiet intensity.
Once introduced, we had a nice conversation with her; she had liked Boston during her travels. On learning of my background, she talked of the dearth of original story ideas in Hindi cinema. More we spoke, the bimbo image started evaporating, and I saw an articulate, intelligent woman behind the ‘Roop ki Rani …’, and ‘Chaalbaaz’.
It must take a lot more than fancy costume and make-up to become another character on the stage. Especially after acting in 300 films, she had ostensibly mastered the art of swapping her ‘mundane’ out to become romantic Pallavi/Pooja in ‘Lamhe’, terrified ‘Satya’ in ‘Kshana Kshanam’, fraudster Anju/Manju in Chaalbaaz, donkey-riding Nehalata in ‘Sadma’, and bizarre Seema Soni in ‘Mr. India’.
After going through such a broad spectrum of persona(s), does the mundane personality survive yet, or does it all get jumbled up, as yet another character in an intermittent drama? Could not tell, except that she was gracious, engaging, and an excellent conversationalist.
Just then, she starting getting ready to go under the camera. Vanita and I sat in the director’s chairs directly facing the set barely 20 feet away from action. Shooting proceeded for a song that Sridevi was enacting; once that take was complete, there was some debate between her and the director; I could sense that the director was holding back, maybe out of hesitation.
Then she suddenly turned to me for feedback and I liberally gave my directorial advice, which she heard intently. Within a few minutes, the set was re-organized and she masterfully incorporated the suggestions through facial expressions in a rather nuanced manner, delightfully transforming the next take. When done, she glanced inquiringly to check, I nodded, and she gave back a smile, which I shall cherish forever.
This morning I spoke with my friend Basheer Ali, who reminisced about his association with Sridevi and said, recently she had remembered our meeting and asked, “When is your Boston friend coming back with a screenplay?”
(Shekhar Shastri is a poet, musician and a dramatist. He writes poetry and plays in Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu and English. He is founder-director of Meru Education Foundation, which promotes arts and culture of India, globally. He is the producer of Rāga-Rang, where Indian Classical Music meets cutting-edge melodies. He lectures on Sanskrit Poetics and Dramaturgy at MIT, USA.)