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A star is reborn

Fifteen years after she stepped out of the spotlight to focus on her family, Indian film star Sridevi returns with a new movie. P. Ramakrishnan meets the Bollywood legend

 

Queen, housewife, journalist, nurse, mystical snake-woman, princess, bandit, goddess, secretary, mad woman, fallen angel, police officer, drug addict, wannabe pop star, dancer, singer, embittered first wife, chief executive, Afghan tribal leader, falsely implicated drug smuggler and streetwalker - Sridevi has been them all.

Star of more than 200 Indian films (in five languages) and a member of the haloed pantheon of Bollywood celebrities, Sridevi is a larger-than-life figure. She had done it all on-screen by the age of 34. With beguiling, sari-clad ease, she'd sung and danced, grieved and raged and cried and laughed on the big screen. As a child star - she won her first award before she was a teen - to a leading lady and screen icon, her cinematic journey was marked with box-office triumph, record-making pay cheques and trophies galore.

Then she took a break - for 15 years.

WITH A TEAR ROLLING down her cheek and a quivering smile, Sridevi faced a 10-minute standing ovation after the premiere of her comeback film, English Vinglish, at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14. At the event, her Sabyasachi Mukherjee sari ranked her alongside best-dressed celebrities Zac Efron, Penelope Cruz and Monica Bellucci - and that was before she brought her most potent weapons to bear.

"Those eyes - when she looks at you, you sort of get lost," says writer and director Gauri Shinde, who yanked Sridevi out of her self-imposed retirement. "As a woman, I [was affected], I can't imagine what it does to men.

"Meeting Sridevi the first time was surreal. Is this true? Is this happening? I felt like I was in the middle of Requiem for a Dream, not sure what was real and unreal. I sat there and just watched her. And she looks like a diva-movie star in her natural state. She was at home in blue jeans and a shirt. She had no make-up on, her youngest daughter was running around. She has this lovely, luminous skin and the most gorgeous, heart-breaking eyes …"

Heart-breaking indeed. Oscar nominee and Midnight's Children director Deepa Mehta, who ran into Sridevi at the festival where both their films were being screened the same week, tweeted: "There is something very poignant, heart-breaking about a megastar making a comeback after eons."

Shinde flinches at the word "comeback": "Oh that expression means nothing to me. The movie was never a vehicle to bring anyone back. My husband [producer/director R. Balki] was in conversation with Sridevi's husband, Boney Kapoor, and casually mentioned that I was working on my first film. Sridevi overheard and was intrigued by the story. She asked to meet me."

With a background in advertising, Shinde wrote and directed a slew of minute-long ads in Mumbai before she took a break and flew to New York to study film. Her first short, Oh Man! (2001), was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival. Her latest script, written in 2008, was penned without a specific actor in mind.

"My first full-length feature film, with the most famous Indian actress alive - who thinks like that?" laughs Shinde, pulling back copious curls. "I'm certainly not that optimistic. I feel everything fell into place by some miracle, from my DOP [director of photography], music director, crew and cast - that includes Mehdi Nebbou [seen in Steven Spielberg's Munich and Ridley Scott's Body of Lies], I can't imagine this movie without them. The script I had written, shooting that in cinematic New York, in Pune, where I grew up, in Mumbai, where I work, it was all a waking dream come true."

"The script made me want to do the film, and, of course, Gauri," says Sridevi, when I grab a few minutes with her at the JW Marriott hotel in Mumbai. She has just finished a workout and stands before me in a tracksuit. Her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, her unmade-up skin showing few signs of her 49 years. She's soft-spoken, notably shy, yet easy to smile. And when she looks at me, I know immediately what Shinde was talking about when she mentioned those eyes …

… I zone back in and ask about the reasons behind the 15-year break.

"When I had my daughters, I didn't want to miss out on anything, so I took a break," says Sridevi. "I didn't want to miss their first words, their first walk, by being on a set while the nannies took care of them. Because of my children, I didn't miss the industry, not even a little bit.

"But I didn't think I'd be away for so long. When Gauri gave me the script to read, I loved it. I could relate to it - so I did it. Had she come to me four or five years ago, I would have said yes then, too."

Born to father Ayyappan, a lawyer, and mother Rajeshwari (who, like their daughter, go by one name) in Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, Sridevi was first cast in a Tamil film at the age of four. One film led to another and her career as a formidable child artiste grew as she appeared in a spate of South Indian films. National recognition came later. Solva Saawan (Sweet Sixteen; 1979), her first Hindi film, tanked at the box office and Sridevi was happy to never do a Bollywood movie again. She's often said she hated doing the film as she didn't understand Hindi. Years later, she gave Bollywood another try. With her voice dubbed (she learned Hindi years later), she exploded into the national consciousness in Himmatwala (The Brave One, 1983).

So much has changed in the 15 years she has been away from an industry that centres on the young, the new and the endless parade of beauty queens and models with limited acting skills. In her second act, will the audience find Sridevi as appealing as they did when temples were created in her name? The premise of English Vinglish is unlike any of those that are garnering millions at the box office in India, or elsewhere, where action-packed flicks and inane, slapstick comedies have been filling cash registers.

And then, there's the age factor. As Meryl Streep famously said in Vogue after having been offered three parts as a witch: "Once women passed childbearing age … they could only be seen as grotesque on some level."

When Sridevi left the industry she was pregnant with her first child and had seen the song and dance numbers peter out. She had been nominated for best actress at the Filmfare Awards - the Indian equivalent of the Oscars - consecutively for five years and the critically acclaimed film Lamhe (Moments) had garnered her nearly every major award, although the box office had not been kind.

If Shinde's anxious about ticket sales, though, she shows no sign of it.

"It's been a blessing that I've not had a moment to think about opening weekend box-office figures," Shinde says. "There's always a modus operandi in the media to work a phrase into a film: it's a 'women's picture' - which it isn't; I'm no feminist, neither is my film - it's not a 'comeback film' - which is such an easy slot to pigeonhole this into - and I certainly don't think about whether the movie will make a 100 million. I honestly haven't thought about it as we've been working day and night to meet deadlines, firstly to send the final cut to Canada for the film festival, then simultaneously, as the movie is being made in regional languages, we've had launches and premieres in different states in India, so all that has to be overseen.

"Thankfully, my husband is Tamilian, he's been going over all the details for the [southern] states in India. We've not forgotten that Sridevi is one of the last pan-Indian stars. She's a familiar face everywhere by the sheer volume of films she's done."

In English Vinglish, a linguistically challenged housewife, Shashi (Sridevi), is married to an educated patriarch (stage actor Adil Hussain), who is condescending about his wife's English. A family wedding takes Shashi to New York, where she's traumatised by the overwhelming city and its foreign cacophony. Encouraged by her niece, she takes up English tuition, joining a class of immigrants.

Having been the leading lady in five regional languages, Sridevi says, "I've always had a problem with language - so when I did this film, I could relate to it instantly. I'm not fluent in any [she says with a laugh].

"My directors used to call me a parrot," she said in an interview with CNN. "I'd retain the dialogue, emote what was necessary, but I didn't know what I was saying in the beginning when I did films in Kannada, Malayalam and even in Hindi in the 1980s. Now I'm better but …"

A comedy of errors and miscommunication aside, the film is a gentle probe into class structure, alienation, fear and embarrassment brought on by a world that speaks a common language - but where the lead protagonist doesn't.

"My mother's the inspiration and starting point for the film," Shinde says. "She's a businesswoman and always felt had she been fluent or at ease with English, she would have prospered much more. She thinks the film's about her - but it really isn't. There's no Frenchman in her life who comes and whisks her around New York. She's happily staying put in Pune."

How did the Frenchman, played by Nebbou, who is used to working in American and European films, feel about his love interest?

"He, like most of our cast, was in awe of our leading lady - my husband calls her the 'hero' of the film," Shinde says. "Sridevi has this awesome way of being completely true to her character on-screen and then she just switches back to being herself when the scene's done. She's very shy and keeps to herself, mostly. Well, she did originally and most of the crew - many of us who grew up watching her - were in awe of her. But she made the effort to put her co-stars at ease."

As the late photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha, who had known Sridevi from her first few Hindi films, once said: "There are two Sridevis. Two people as different from each other as you can imagine, leading quite separate lives, who never seem to meet even though they inhabit the same body. I first met the off-screen Sridevi. She's shy, unsure, awkward, an almost simple-looking girl who talks in barely audible murmurs. Then, there is the screen Sridevi, who appears as if by magic the minute you switch on the arc lights. She's a sensuous seductress capable of unblocking your abused arteries with one look from her smouldering eyes.

"No matter how she saps my energy and spontaneity with her obsession for perfection, the adrenalin spurts back the moment she turns to face the camera."

At the Toronto festival, co-star Adil Hussain said: "Having worked on stage for years, I'm not in awe of stars. When I heard I had to work with her, I thought, 'Good, she's a good actor.' But the one time I was nervous, was during a scene near the end of the film when I had to dance with her." Hussain covers his eyes with his hands. "Dance with the Sridevi. That day I was full of doubt."

Says Shinde: "She doesn't live in the past, there are no affectations, she's supremely … normal. She's just so calm and collected."

The film itself has a patina that's more Westernised than the glitz and glam of the average Hindi movie. The director's proclivity for independent films as opposed to mainstream, song-and-dance flicks, is visible in the trailer.

"I think my film is not 'filmy' … Despite having such a glamorous mainstream actress, I didn't want to fall into that trap. We kept it suited to her character, there's no big 'item' song number, and this is despite the many people who told us that you can't have a film with a dancing diva and not make her dance. But I listened to no one. You've got to have conviction in your own story, what's right for her character, it's pitched that way. There are no jokes per se, there's no slapstick, there's humour, drama, emotion, romance, it's all there, but it's subtle.

"It's a different masala."

 

English Vinglish is showing on October 5 and 6 at Chinachem Golden Plaza Cinema, Tsim Sha Tsui.

 

 

 

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