Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Short review – Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess

[Wrote this short piece about Satyarth Nayak’s Sridevi book for India Today; it was done many months ago, but since their feature pages were constantly being shortened or dropped in favour of Covid-related coverage, the piece only appeared in print last week]
There is good reason to approach an authorised biography with wariness, especially when the subject is a beloved movie star and the book is published not long after her untimely, much-lamented death. Such were my initial feelings about Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, which was written with the cooperation of the actress’s husband Boney Kapoor, described by the author as “the invisible force behind this book”.

But what makes this book feel personal (and discourages the notion that it was a hurried ego project) is that Nayak makes his own Sridevi obsession immediate and persuasive. While much of the journalistic information here comes from magazines, or first-hand interviews, there is also enough evidence that the author has closely watched and engaged with her large filmography. For those of us who know Sridevi mainly through her work in Hindi cinema, some of the most interesting sections are the ones about her work in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema, starting with her child roles playing mythological characters like Lord Murugan.

Growing up in the mid-1980s, I must have been among a tiny minority of Hindi-film-loving boys who wasn’t utterly besotted by Sridevi – even though she was central to some of my favourite films such as Mr India and Chandni (and a little less central to other favourites such as Karma, Aakhree Raasta and Watan ke Rakhwale). One reason for this may have been that Sridevi was that rarity among beautiful actresses, someone who was willing to look silly, even buffoonish, on screen, and could pull off slapstick comedy very well – these qualities can be discomfiting if, at a certain age, you want your screen crushes to be aloof and goddess-like (which is something she could also be when required).

Nayak discusses the many Sridevis, including the child-woman who never had a proper transition from childhood to adulthood. (“It was almost as if she was playing out a double role in real life as well – a kid who had grown too much, an adult who had grown too little.”) He covers her intuitive approach to acting, her extraordinary comedic talent, and her deployment of the many rasas in classical Indian expression. The successful pairings with Kamal Haasan, the epochal performances in films like Mondram Pirai (remade in Hindi as Sadma), the rivalry with Jaya Prada, the rise to a stature where she could play an eye-catching double role in even an Amitabh Bachchan film (Khuda Gawah). The ways in which she maintained a measure of control over the male gaze (even while working in a male-dominated industry where heroines were often treated as eye candy) and how her persona in films like Nagina resonated with closet homosexuals, or with other marginalised people.

He often begins his analysis of a Sridevi performance in a scene with the words “Watch how…” This can get repetitive and sometimes ornate (“So harrowing is this act that one wonders if it gutted the very insides of the actress” […] “Her face created its own grammar, her charisma overrode every technical rule, creating a physicality that was simply impossible to replicate”) – and it’s possible to wonder how, discussing dozens of films across decades and languages, he doesn’t find anything seriously negative to say about a performance. (Dissing some of her choices is another matter; that’s easily done with any prolific Indian movie star.) But there is also something direct and pleasing about this nerdy attention to detail, this willingness to focus on the little moments, and that’s what raises this book above the assembly-line biography. Even if this is a hagiography, it feels rooted in an honest love for its subject.

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