Srinivas Kanchibhotla tribute to Sridevi
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25 February 2018


Not many had a career like Sridevi's, in fact, none. She worked and worked and worked....and that's the only thing she did, until the movies moved past her. Till then, shuttling among different industries, changing her tact and tongue with the ease of a breeze changing direction, she entered and endeared herself with the local lot within no time. And why wouldn't she? She probably was the first consummate professional that the Indian movie industry ever had. Regardless of the language, when the camera was turned on, the expressions changed with it just as easily, and when it was turned off, the spigot stopped and she moved on to the next shot, the next setup, the next movie, the next language, and the next industry. Not many can lay claim to such a grueing work ethic and that too, for well over three decades. Natural talent was what she was called, though the number of movies that truly exploited that across all the industries she worked in would nicely fit on the fingers of one hand. What the industries needed was more than talent, it was throughput, someone who could show up every single day, deliver the goods and move on. And deliver she did, movie after movie, year after year, decade after decade, industry after industry.

When the industries picked up the steam in the 80s and started churning out movies by the hundreds, when the (aging) heroes needed someone to brighten up the screen in ill fitting song sequences (the only times when they were willing to cede camera control), she grabbed the opportunities (regardless of whom she was paired with) with both her hands and while at it, turned the spotlight on herself and let it linger on for the entire duration of the song. In fact, that was her speciality, the song sequences. And by that, it was not during the performance of the robotic, aerobic, drill exercise dance moves where she exceled at, the kind of "steps" that were just coming into vogue during her consolidation phase, the kind of moves specifically desinged to accommodate the pot bellied and slow moving stiff heroes. which needed her to purposefully dumb herself down and match the geriatric gents. Where she dazzled at were in those few seconds of close ups, the cutaways, the changeovers, when the camera was hers and hers alone. That's where Sridevi truly shone, showing her versatility, her true colors. Aside from a Kamal Hasan here and a Chiranjeevi there (and none from the Hindi film industry), none could match her charm, grace, poise and presence during those 5 minute exhilarating exhibitions of unbridled energy. Never before and never after has an actress became and remained synonymous with the main stay and ultimate escapism of the Indian film industry, the song sequence. From the one song that solidly put her on the map "aaku chATu pinde taDise" to her last one "ammani teeyani debba" where she truly met her match, Sridevi's career reveled in those obligatory (and mandatory, even) placeholders of commercial cinema. Dancing in a song was not about the act or craft or the talent or the technicalities of dancing at all, at least in Indian movies. It was all about emoting, the eye brows that danced more than the feet, the eyes that lit up more than the lights, the smile that simply brightened up the face - for an untrained, unskilled, amateur dancer, there was no better performer on the Indian screens during those relief sequences than Sridevi. Such was her hold and sway with the audience that songs, which were (and continue to be) an excuse for giving them a break, in fact, remained the reason why they turned up at the turnstiles and her songs were what that held them in their seats for that much longer. If Phalke is remembered by his introductory contribution to the motion picture cause, a Dilip Kumar, an NTR, a Sivaji Ganesan are remembered for their acting crafts, Sridevi will surely go down in sing-song cinematic history as the girl who towered over the rest by mastering the art of seducing the camera.

It is indeed unfortunate her ascendancy in major filmdoms across the country coincided with the meteoric rise in commercial cinema, which relegated the role of a heroine to come in, look good, dance well and when in distress, cry copiously. And Sridevi did just that, and did really well at that. With most of her leading men who were at least thrice her age, she didn't mind playing the usual coy, coquette, flirt without drawing too much attention to herself, quite happy playing the dumb bimbo stoking their macho egos. But for a "devatha" here and a "kshaNa kshaNam" there, none of the other roles required her to really exercise her acting muscles, and she appeared quite fine with it too, dazzling during and disappeaing right ater the song sequences. But in those brief moments when the role let her stretch her legs, like in the first half of "kshaNa kshaNam", she showed what she was capable of, beyond the good looks and fast legs. The moment of frustration that she so naturally lets out in an exasperated sigh muttering "daevuDaa daevuDaa daevuDaa" under her breath when she was about to be harassed by ruffian, after just going through a murderous ordeal a few scenes before, is an actor's/director's/audience's delight. It was comedy at its finest, more when the character was never aiming for it. It was subtle, nuanced and very polished. There were no dialogues there, in fact, there was no need for them. It was all in the face, the drooping lips, the clenching jaw and the tightened cheecks. Now that is natural talent. But such roles and demands were very far and too few between. The rest were all making eyes at the camera and making the camera reciprocate the love in kind. She was never an actress in the strictest sense, she was always a star and stars by their very nature shone on their own, needing very little from everything around for their sustenance. She probably was the only star from the South who had crossed over into the Northern belt and yet steadfastly played safe on the glitzier side of things than take the risk and prove herself artistically too, a la, Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthi Mala, or even Hema Malini. Her stunning screen awareness and assured screen presence in a way worked against her not allowing the artistic folk to see past her looks and offer her roles that dimmed down her star wattage. On the flip side, when the story needed for a stunning beauty who could beguile even an invisible man to dance to her tunes, roll around in wet hay and dance with a gay abandon, there was an era when industries from all over the country couldn't see past one name - SRI DEVI. And that name wasn't built in a day. It was brick by brick, role after role, dance after dance, movie after movie, and industry after industry. If there is one word to describe Sri Devi, it isn't "glamorous", it is "industrious". Long live her ethic!

You are the dancing queen
Young and sweet
Only seventeen
Dancing queen
Feel the beat from the tambourine, oh yeah
You can dance
You can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh, see that girl
Watch that scene
Dig in the dancing queen

- Dancing Queen, ABBA.


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