Sridevi: The Overwhelming Silence of the Queen of Laughter


Sridevi: The Overwhelming Silence of the Queen of Laughter

Illustration: Akshita Monga

In 1991, Yash Chopra made a movie with a story that was begging to be misunderstood. Lamhe was bound for failure. How can you show a man falling in love with a woman whose guardian he is, who could have been his daughter, was the rallying cry. Of course, the fact that Sridevi’s character was not Anil Kapoor’s daughter escaped everyone. Of course the movie tanked locally (even though it is considered an overseas blockbuster).

Anil Kapoor even called it a mistake. Sridevi didn’t say anything. But then again, she never did, you know.

Come to think of it, the enduring silence of Sridevi in a world where everyone had a soundbyte, a point of view or joke has been deafening. There was the time Sridevi referred to Steven Spielberg as Spielbergji and Madhuri Dixit found it hilarious. So much so that she told the whole world and its mother about it.

Sridevi still didn’t say anything. She wouldn’t you know.

In a 300-film career spanning more than 50 years, you’d be hard pressed to find an occasion when Sridevi has spoken off-screen. Whether in controversy, celebration, or grief. In 1993, Mahesh Bhatt’s Gumrah released, starring Sridevi and Sanjay Dutt. It was the same year that Sanjay Dutt was arrested under TADA. It was also the year Sridevi lost her mother. She was shattered. Yet she returned to the sets, shot her scenes and gave it her all. Nobody heard anything about her mother’s death. Compare this to when Juhi Chawla’s mother died and everyone knew the horrific details of the accident, and the very public grieving that followed. During this time Mahesh Bhatt gave several quotes praising her professionalism.

For a person who lived in silence, dance was her self-expression, which meant that you could never copy Sridevi. 

She though, did not say anything. When it came to Sridevi there was only silence. But if you ever need proof of her grief, watch her break down in that movie and tell me if you don’t see a broken child there.

There is so much that has been said of Sridevi’s beauty, her dance, her grace, her professionalism, yet there’s never been a word of self-promotion from her. You can put it down to her painful shyness, others would put it down to her not knowing the language of self-promotion for the masses. Not knowing Hindi in those early years (Rekha did her voice when she started her career in Bollywood) seemed to have set her off on a journey that didn’t stop even when she became proficient. Every interviewer who has ever met her has only come back with reports of how difficult it was to get her to talk. The irony that this same reticent woman would turn into a shimmering cinestar the minute the camera turned on her was the stuff that built her legend.  

As her legend grew, so did her reputation as a silent, and increasingly lonely figure.

A 2012 Mint Lounge article, written before the release of English Vinglish, cited a 1987 Stardust story about her unhappy life off screen, marred by under confidence, excessive parental control, and an overwhelming loneliness. “When she wasn’t working, Stardust said, she wandered aimlessly through her house clutching a large stuffed doll, in effect an effigy of herself.”

It is a disturbing, voyeuristic story but it might carry in it a hint of truth. A few years ago, a colleague sat at a high-end restaurant in suburban Mumbai when Sridevi walked in. She sat on a table in the corner and for the next three hours, proceeded to cry silently. The waitstaff didn’t dare approach her, as she sat quietly with tears running down her face until her daughter came and whisked her away at midnight. Naturally, nothing was ever heard of this story.

Even as the silence continued off-screen, Sridevi spoke to us loudly from the screen. As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, we all danced when Madhuri danced. When Sridevi danced, you watched. Spellbound. From the tips of her fingers, to every move of her eyes, you just watched. Madhuri had Saroj Khan’s signature steps that every little girl caught on to. Sridevi was the signature. You just couldn’t pull one step out of her dance and make it your own. What Sridevi did was put herself into the movement. For a person who lived in silence, dance was her self-expression, which meant that you could never copy Sridevi. That dance was only and only her.

Her death in February this year, unleashed an outpouring of feelings, videos, think pieces, including this one. The decibel level of this noise would really have startled her. The public discussion around the reasons for her death, her pills, her cosmetic surgeries, would have made her shrink in terror.

She, of course, wasn’t here to defend herself. Even if she were, I am certain she wouldn’t have said a word.