So Long and Thank You for the Laughs, Sridevi

Bollywood

So Long and Thank You for the Laughs, Sridevi

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I

n 2017, Sridevi starred in MOM, where she played Devki, an avenging mother who bypasses the law and exacts revenge for her daughter’s rape. MOM was the actress’ 300th film and although it was far from her oeuvre — of being India’s first legit female comedian — traces of her legacy loomed over so many other women-led films of the same year.

For starters, there was Hansal Mehta’s rather difficult-to-slot Simran, where Kangana Ranaut played Praful Patel, a 30-year-old divorcee and housekeeper, who starts robbing banks after her life falls apart due to a gambling habit. Despite being inspired by real, fairly dark events, the film shed the baggage of a dark crime thriller, and instead chose to pitch itself as an oddball comedy. That move ultimately didn’t pay off; but what stood out was Kangana’s masterfully goofy comic timing where it’s easy to see traces of Sridevi, an early infuser of klutz in comedy.

Sridevi taught us that it was okay for girls to be funny, that they could make you laugh. She used a combination of physical clumsiness and facial contortion to derive laughs way back in the late eighties with Mr India and Chaalbaaz, and the legacy has endured.

The Sridevi brand of comedy wasn’t one that was in your face; it didn’t seem rehearsed or forced into a plot through clever dialogues.

Think about it. Before Sridevi, which leading lady made us laugh? At a time when actresses were relegated to being supporting arcs in a hero’s story, the butt of all jokes, or a love-interest whose cardio involved running around trees, Sridevi seemed intent on driving home the lesson that actresses could be funny too. And not in the Audrey Hepburn cute way — in a flat-out, throaty Lucille Ball way. It was because of her that filmmakers seemed to warm up to the idea that actresses didn’t need to exist in a film only to have the audience laugh at them, but instead laugh because of them.

The best evidence of this is undoubtedly Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India, where despite having a smaller role than its superhero Anil Kapoor, Sridevi manages to steal the limelight from right under his nose. It was also one of the first films where the audience got a taste of her inimitable comic timing, especially in the unforgettable sequence where she dresses up as Charlie Chaplin. Not only does she manage to get Chaplin’s mannerisms and walk down pat, she elevates it several notches higher with her nutty expressions.

To this day, I find it hard to not burst out laughing when she curls her lip and contorts her face into a comic laugh the minute she is quizzed about her identity or when she raises her eyebrows and laughs in glee when the dart hits the henchman. The best bit comes toward the end where she gets drunk, has alcohol raining out of her ear, breaks an alcohol bottle on the face of a henchman, and darts across the table. All this while, rolling her eyes in typical Sri fashion, falling down clumsily, and then slapping and getting slapped by her tiny partner-in-crime. And then there is the piece de resistance, Hawa Hawai, where she adlibs a style of comedic dance that relies on her pulling faces, tinged with a dose of klutz. In a film about a comic superhero, the real hero is Miss India’s comic timing.

Sridevi

Sridevi’s brand of physical comedy also relied on her being a master of disguises.

Image credit: Boney Kapoor Productions

My favourite Sridevi comic moment however, is in Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja. In the scene, (also opposite Anil Kapoor) Sridevi starts pretend-crying as a bewildered Kapoor looks on. She’s a con disguised as a loud Tamil woman spurned by her husband. The actress scrunches up her face, juts out her chest repeatedly, and sits on the ground in protest while angling her body in a series of excruciatingly hilarious moves. Of course you cringe at the stereotyping and the loudness — but you laugh despite yourself.

Her faultless comic versatility on screen became all the more ingenious when you realise that it is completely at odds with her offscreen personality. In real life, Sridevi, was a reticent personality, a woman of few words who shied away from interviews, and chose to remain out of the limelight. What Sridevi was bringing out onscreen whether it was her laugh-out-loud funny turn as two separated twins in Chalbaaz or her innocent hilarity as a woman with a seven-year-old’s mind in Sadma, was a performance in the truest sense of the word.

The Sridevi brand of comedy wasn’t one that was in your face; it didn’t seem rehearsed or forced into a plot through clever dialogues. Instead it was a kind of physical comedy comprised of tiny mannerisms like an eyeroll, a contorted face, or a high-pitched giggle. She had the eerie knack of drawing laughs from the unlikeliest situations, making it seem an organic trait of any character.

Sridevi

In Hawa Hawai, Sridevi adlibs a style of comedic dance that relies on her pulling faces, tinged with a dose of klutz.

Image credit: Boney Kapoor Productions

In the years that followed the end of Sridevi’s comic career and the start of a more “mature” one, filmmakers have been paying homage to Sridevi in one way or another; Rani Mukherjee did a version of “Kaate Nahi Kat-te” in Aiyya, and street children danced to “Hawa Hawai” in Salaam Bombay. It is impossible to watch these two films without being acutely reminded of the Sri who knew how to tickle the audience’s funnybone.

The homages have continued. Recently in  Tumhari Sulu, where the actress’ comic legacy was not only apparent in the way the film treated its lead, but in actually recreating “Hawa Hawai”. In fact, Balan’s performance — the wide eyes, apologetic smile, and unabashed vulnerability — was the closest an actress had come to capturing the collective imagination of the audience the way Sridevi did back in the day.

For the actress, heralded as Bollywood’s first “female superstar” in the 80s’ and who made girls across the country aspire to dance like her, was also Bollywood’s first heroine-comedienne. Thank you for the laughs, Sri. Badi chhoti si hai mulaqat, bade afsos ki hai baat.

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