It is really superfluous to say that Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan, born August 13, 1963, to a Tamil father and a Telugu mother from Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, went on to become the one and only Sridevi. What is a shade tangier, perhaps, is to know that she was born in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu - the city known to manufacture fireworks. And Sridevi, right to her 300th film, Mom, kept on making fireworks on screen.
She was the sole income earner in her family when she first faced the camera at the age of four, supporting her mother, stepfather, sister and stepbrother. The fact that divine blessings seemed to be on her from day one seemed clear from her debut 1969 Tamil film Thunaivan, in which she played Lord Murugan. She went on to play various deities like Lord Krishna in her long career as a child artiste.
1969 also saw her Malayalam debut with Kumara Sambhavam. In 1970, she made her Telugu debut in Maa Nanna Nirdoshi, and in 1974, in Kannada, with Bhakta Kumbara. A year later, Sridevi made her debut in Hindi with the super-hit Julie as heroine Laxmi's younger sister.
A meteoric rise
Since she had made a lead debut as an adolescent at 13 with the 1976 Moondru Modichu with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth, her careers as a heroine and child artiste Baby Sridevi (as she was even known affectionately in her teens) overlapped for a while. She did more Telugu movies than in any South language, she also stated recently that the kind of artistic satisfaction she got doing films in the South could never be matched with the good roles she got in Hindi cinema. Ironically, however, it was Hindi cinema that was to finally make her a globally known face and icon, working with every top star from Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha to Sunny Deol, Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff and Govinda, followed by Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan!
Sridevi never knew what "regret" was. She dropped out of school because of her back-to-back shooting, and neither missed nor regretted it. The growing-up years were similar, and of the 54 years she lived, almost 50 were spent in the studios! As Kamal Haasan (with whom she did the highest number of films: 27!) put it, "She was like a blotting paper" in how quick she was to absorb what she was supposed to do.
However, when her daughter Jhanvi signed her debut film in 2017, Dhadak, Sridevi requested all to judge her kindly, because Jhanvi lacked the expertise and experience Sridevi had at her age: the mother in her ruled even with younger daughter Khushi.
16 Vayathinile (1977), Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), Meendum Kokila (1981), Moondram Pirai (1982), Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980), Premabhishekam (1981), Aakhari Poratam (1988), Jagadeka Veerudu Atiloka Sundari (1990) and Kshana Kshanam (1991) were among her most famous movies down South.
In the South, both as a child and a heroine, Sridevi worked with almost all the heroes, though not all were romantically cast with her, like Sivaji Ganesan, M G Ramachandran, A Nageswara Rao, N T Rama Rao, Vishnuvardhan, Dr Rajkumar, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh, Aravind Swamy and Chiranjeevi. Her stalwart directors included K Balachander, Balu Mahendra, I V Sasi, Bharathiraja, K S Sethumadhavan, Dasari Narayana Rao, K Raghavendra Rao, K Bhagyaraj, and (only in the Hindi Jaag Utha Insan as far as known) K Vishwanath.
In Hindi, Sridevi made a bad beginning with the 16 Vayathinile-remake Solva Sawan (1979), which flopped badly and co-starred Amol Palekar, then the blue-eyed boy of middle-of-the-road cinema. The actor has gone on record to wonder why she was signed at all for K Raghavendra Rao's Himmatwala opposite a mega-star like Jeetendra. But when he was an assistant director, Raghavendra Rao had once rushed her to a doctor after minor injuries following an accident on the sets. And it was Rao who made her a star in Telugu with Padaharella Vayasu (1978) and also in that 1983 trendsetter film of Himmatwala.
Himmatwala ushered in a wave of conveyor-belt South-made Hindi potboilers, mostly opposite Jeetendra, with music by Bappi Lahiri, and quite a few interchangeable Kishore Kumar-Asha Bhosle duets that set the trend for a romantic song with multiple dancers and props like pillars, clay-pots, balls and balloons. And though some songs and films (Mawaali, Tohfa, Maqsad) became hits, it was observed that Mumbai film-makers were reluctant to sign 'Ms Thunder Thighs', as she came to be known from such song dances.
In a reinvented avatar
The first to break the jinx was producer Rakesh Roshan in Jaag Utha Insan (1984), which like her Moondram Pirai-remake Sadma, flopped. Undeterred, Rakesh cast her again in Bhagwaan Dada (1986), and Hrithik Roshan recalls his first speaking part in a scene with her as a kid, in which she deliberately trembled to show that she too was apprehensive and put him at ease.
Gradually, Mumbai's doors opened - Feroz Khan, known to work only with well-known heroines, gave her an unforgettable cameo opposite himself in Janbaaz, Mukul S Anand cast her in Sultanat, Subhash Ghai in Karma, and Harmesh Malhotra, who had toyed with Rekha and Jaya Prada for the role, signed her for what was to be his career-biggest money-spinner, the 100-weeker Nagina. The last film, with its now-cult snake dance, 'Main Teri Dushman', finally got her accepted in Mumbai.
Around this time, Boney Kapoor approached her for Mr. India, and when Sridevi's mother quoted a fee of Rs 10 lakh, he paid a fee of Rs 12 lakh as he was already smitten by her! The film's success, complete with the iconic songs 'Kaate Nahin Kat-Te' and 'Hawa Hawaai' that are, respectively, benchmark erotic and comic songs now, catapulted her to the status of numero uno (read highest-paid) heroines, zooming past contenders like Dimple Kapadia, Jaya Prada and Meenakshi Seshadri.
Yash Chopra, looking at reinventing himself following a flop parade, cast her as the first of his classic romantic icons in Chandni (1989) opposite Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna. In the same year, Mumbai whizkid Pankaj Parashar directed a Seeta Aur Geeta-like double role in Chaalbaaz. The chameleonic switch-on-switch-off actor with a quicksilver fluidity of expressions was now the undisputed Queen Bee.
The 1990s saw Sridevi face the onslaught of Madhuri Dixit, but she gave a tough fight. Yash Chopra's Lamhe, Mukul's Khuda Gawah (two more dual roles for her among many in Hindi films), Mahesh Bhatt's Gumrah, Raj Kanwar's Laadla and Judaai were among her weightier portrayals.
But having married Boney Kapoor in 1994, and with her first daughter (Janhvi) born in 1997, she weaned off films, coming back to do a television serial (in 2005) with her husband, Malini Iyer. She went backstage and also produced three films: Shakti-The Power, Run and Bewafaa, all flops.
It was in 2012 that she got back to films with English Vinglish, the only successful screen return of any female actor of her generation. With a towering performance as a flustered hausfrau who discovers her identity in the most heartwarming way, Sridevi was back, yet determined to be choosy.
In 2015, she essayed the negative lead in her last Tamil film (her regional career had flourished too until her break in 1997), Puli, which bombed. But she was back with her 300th film, the Hindi Mom, last year. Unconfirmed reports say that she had been signed for Shiddat, being co-produced by Karan Johar and Sajid Nadiadwala and directed by Abhishek '2 States' Verman.
Padma Shri Sridevi Kapoor is no more. But the name of this fabulous actor will never be taken in the past tense. Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan aka Sridevi is forever.