Obituary: Sridevi

A Star Dims. Sridevi: 13th August 1963-25th February 2018

This is, without a doubt, one of the saddest obituaries I have written; the heart is heavy as I put pen to paper.

Bollywood’s first female superstar. The highest paid female actor of her time. A volcano of talent. Spontaneous actress. Charming. Beautiful. Dignified.

Yes, all this and more. Lots of adjectives commonly used to describe the woman who electrified the silver screen. I shall refer to her only as Sridevi Kapoor – the best adjunct she would have liked.

Sridevi began her acting career at the tender age of four, with ‘Thunaivan’ directed by M.A. Thirumugam. Her first Hindi film was ‘Solva Sawaan’ which didn’t fare too well at the box office and she actually made her presence felt in Bollywood with ‘Himmatwala’ opposite Jeetendra. ‘Mr India’ and ‘Chaalbaaz’ centred on her comic timing and spontaneity while ‘Chandni’ and ‘Lamhe’ portrayed her as the quintessential Indian woman, although it is ‘Sadma’ and perhaps even ‘Gumraah’ that truly showcased the range and depth of her talent. Since she was 54-years old when she passed away, this makes it a career almost spanning five decades, except that she took a break from films between 1997-2012 after her daughters were born. Strangely, although Indian audiences are not usually kind to heroines who resume acting after marriage and motherhood, they welcomed Sridevi back with open arms and she effortlessly resurrected her career with ‘English Vinglish’ in 2012.

Plenty of obituaries will be listing out the highlights of her career graph. I’d like to talk about her as Sridevi the person. I interviewed her in New Delhi several years ago, when she had come there to perform for a stage show organised by Subhash Ghai. My lingering impression remains that of a slender, young, fair-skinned woman, infinitely softspoken and well-mannered, who addressed all female journalists as ‘ma’am’ and all male journalists as ‘sir’ – this, when she was at the height of her fame. Even though Subhash Ghai came blustering into the room to tell her to wrap up quick as it was getting time for the show, she remained patient and stuck to her commitment of the interview. In person, she was quite beautiful even without the use of make-up, something most actresses are unable to pull off, with a glow to her skin and those expressive large eyes. Although exceedingly courteous and gracious, there was a hint of wariness in her eyes; Sridevi was pretty much of an introvert, especially around strangers and, despite countless interviews, remained media-shy. Paradoxically then, her personal life was always under the scanner.

There are glowing accolades about her work and she’s got some awards and even a Padma Shri, tucked under her belt. However, Sridevi faced plenty of struggles otherwise. It couldn’t have been too easy facing the camera from the age of four and studies had to be sacrificed in pursuit of this dream, which only made her more determined to see that her daughters got a good education.

Then came the tragically romantic phase when she and Mithun Chakraborty fell in love with each other. There were rumours that the two had a temple marriage, even though Mithun was already married to Yogeeta Bali at the time. While Sridevi maintained a graceful silence, Mithun confessed to a magazine that the marriage had indeed taken place. Sridevi backed out of this relationship when Yogeeta attempted suicide and Mithun found himself unable to leave her.

It is true that Sridevi stayed at Boney Kapoor’s house during the initial period when she shifted to Bombay, before she found herself some accommodation. Boney’s parents, his wife Mona, their two children, as well as his younger brother Sanjay and wife Maheep, all lived together at Lokhandwala. Mona was a good friend of mine and so, much of what I know of Sridevi’s personal life has been from Mona’s perspective. Sridevi has been accused by many of being the home breaker here; Mona’s mother Sattee Shourie even famously slapped Sridevi in the lobby of a five star hotel when she came across her. Through all this, Sridevi maintained a stoic dignity, while Mona became increasingly embittered and vitriolic. Once, when she was ranting about Sridevi and I said mildly that I had met her and she did not come across as this brazen, calculating hussy, Mona turned on me demanding to know whose friend I was and whose side I was on.

The thing is, nobody questioned Boney Kapoor’s behavior in all this – surely as the much-married man, he was more responsible! His relationship with Sridevi actually reached a culmination when her mother was to be operated in America for a brain tumour; however, doctors at the Sloane-Kettering hospital goofed up by erroneously using another patient’s X-rays and so the lady was actually operated on the healthy side of her brain. She was transferred to another hospital and the correct surgical procedure was carried out, but she was unable to withstand the trauma. By this time, Boney had flown to be with Sridevi and it is this tragedy, coming on the heels of her father’s death earlier and culminating with a sordid court battle with sister Latha over disputed assets that led her to seek solace in Boney. Although the two got married in 1996 – Sridevi was already heavily pregnant with her first child by this time – the term ‘marriage’ can only be loosely used, as Boney was still married to Mona who continued to vindictively refuse him a divorce in spite of his pleadings. Sridevi finally became Mrs Kapoor only in 2012, when Mona passed away due to cancer.

To her credit, Sridevi changed from sultry siren to mommy of the year, devoting herself exclusively to her home, husband and children. Boney’s driving passion in life was making films and this seems to be the first time he truly fell in love; certainly, he has never been seen far from Sridevi’s side since the two got together. At the time of her passing, they were in Dubai to attend his sister Reena Marwah’s son Mohit’s wedding. Sridevi’s personal life has been so beset with pain and betrayal that one hopes at the final moment of her passing, she was surrounded by love and happiness. Entirely too young to go, with many milestones still ahead of her.

I suppose I am taking this a tad personally because, although I did not know her intimately, I did know of her intimately, due to shared confidences from Mona. I feel much empathy and sorrow for both of them, as both have undeniably suffered in their own ways. These are real people for me, not just a film family. Anshula has given up her bedroom for me many times, whenever I stayed over at Mona’s place…Nirmal aunty has made chaat and chicken for me and shed tears over her own anguish, torn between the two daughters-in-law…Sattee aunty has welcomed me to her home in her inimitable, irascible manner…I have seen Arjun clomping about as a surly, overweight young lad…I have played with Shanaya as a toddler…seen Boney being awkward on his infrequent visits home…Anil has always been gracious and respectful.

The lives of these two ladies seem inextricably linked, in life as well as in death. In what can only be described as exquisite irony, Mona Kapoor died before she could see son Arjun’s debut in films and so has it come to pass with Sridevi Kapoor, with daughter Jhanvi’s debut a few months away. Even more bizarrely, Sridevi’s demise has occurred within Mona Kapoor’s birth month. Does vengeance have an arm beyond the grave…?

I devoutly hope both of them are now at eternal peace.

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