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How Sridevi Challenged Patriarchy in the Film Industry

Satyarth Nayak’s Sridevi The Eternal Screen Goddess explores the life and career of India’s first female superstar  

Sridevi had the inherent talent to light up any screen that she was a part of. The big expressive eyes, long flowing hair and sensuous smile had the whole nation hooked. The biggest star of the 80s and 90s, Sridevi had swept critics and movie goers off their feet with a stunning diversity of performancesas the feisty journalist in Mr India, the fun loving, girl next door in Chandni and the street smart Manju in Chaalbaaz

She became a star but on her own terms, ready to clown as well as to play heroine. Sridevi had everything going for herelegance, earthiness and an enviable comic timing. It was on the dint of her talent that she challenged the prevalent patriarchy in the Indian film industry. Irrespective of who her co-star was, she agreed to do a movie only if she had an equally strong role in it. “She was someone who always flowed against the tide,” says Satyarth Nayak, Mumbai-based screenwriter and the author of her biography, “Sridevi The Eternal Screen Goddess”, which was published in December 2019, more than year after her death in February 2018.  

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“She became the ‘hero’ of her films and raised the status of the Indian film heroine to a whole new dimension. Today we talk about misogyny, sexism and toxic masculinity in the industry and Sridevi had battled it all in the eighties and emerged victorious,” adds Nayak. To document her five-decade-long career spanning 300 films and 3 industriesHindi, Telugu and Tamilwas no easy task. But Nayak, had his heart set upon chronicling the achievements of India’s first female superstar. In a chat with Cosmo, he tells us how Sridevi’s enigma will continue to intrigue and inspire generations of actors". 

Cosmo: Why did you think of writing Sridevi's biography? 

Satyarth Nayak: “I have been an ardent admirer of Sridevi and I had always been appalled by the fact that there was no elaborate book celebrating her prolific career. Hailed as India’s first female superstar, she not only remains the longest running No.1 actress in Hindi cinema but she’s the only actress who was No.1 in Tamil and Telugu cinema as well. Such was her stardom that she towered above her male co-stars and became the ‘hero’ of her films. She is also the only heroine who made a triumphant comeback post her marriage, thus shattering Bollywood rules, just as she had challenged industry patriarchy throughout her career. Indian Cinema is 100 years old and Sridevi owns 50 of those and yet there was no book chronicling these legendary achievements of her. I guess Sridevi’s massive body of work was intimidating for most writers and I glad my book got to celebrate the megastar”.  

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Satyarth Nayak with his book, Sridevi The Eternal Screen Goddess

Cosmo: When did you first meet her?

SN: “I was fortunate to meet Sridevi in 2012 when she had come to Delhi to promote English Vinglish. That’s my only meeting with her and I shall always cherish it. I remember lauding her for her incredible performance in the film and she smiled softly and spoke a few words. We clicked a picture together and it was Sri who directed us to right spot with good lighting. This was one of the lesser known facts about her that she was technically astute about things like how to judge the correct lighting for a shot. 

Cosmo: What were the major challenges that you faced while writing this book?

SN: “One big challenge was what to keep out of the book given that Sridevi’s career is so prolific. This was a book about an actress whose career spanned 50 years, 5 languages and 300 films. Condensing this gargantuan journey in a book was quite daunting but that was also the fun. Another big challenge was to write this book in the absence of Sridevi. If she would have been alive, the narrative would have been more personal. Thankfully, I had a huge stack of film magazines from the 80s and 90s that form a part of my personal collection. They are filled with interviews of Sridevi through various stages of her career. In her absence, those quotes have become her voice in my book. I also wanted to interview as many people as possible who had worked with her. While that seemed challenging initially, I was able to finally interview over 70 personalities including some of the biggest names she had worked with both in Mumbai and down south”. 

Cosmo: The actor was known for keeping her reel and real life separate, how difficult was it to show the demarcation? 

SN: “It was a tough act but I was clear from the very beginning that besides the performer, the book will also explore the person Sridevi was. The fact that there was this fascinating dichotomy about her that she was shy off camera but would come magically alive on camera was wonderful to probe. She was famously called the ‘’switch-on-switch-off’’ actress and I have tried to examine the possible reasons for that. Also, given that she started acting when she was merely four and became a leading lady at the age of twelve, it was interesting to explore the personal side of her journey. You will also find personal anecdotes about how Sridevi coped with her father’s sudden death, her tender relationship with her sister Srilatha, her mother’s botched up surgery in New York and her subsequent marriage with Boney Kapoor and mothering her daughters. She was the quintessential child-woman and remained that till the very end”. 

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Sridevi and her daughter Janhvi Kapoor

Cosmo: What phase of her life impacted you the most? 

SN: “How Sridevi challenged patriarchy in the Indian film industry in the 80s and 90s is one the most fascinating aspects of her cinematic odyssey. In an era where every actress wanted to be a Bachchan heroine, she refused films opposite him unless she had an equally solid role. Amitabh had to woo her by sending her a truckload of flowers to finally get her to act opposite him in Khuda Gawah. When Yash Chopra offered her Darr, she refused it saying she would do it only if she was offered Shah Rukh’s role. She respected her own stardom and talent and wanted to remind the audiences of the true glory of an Indian film heroine. She was respectfully addressed as ‘Mai’ in Bollywood who had become more powerful than her male co-stars and was even paid more than them. It’s even more relevant today and I want it to be a big take-away for the readers of this book. She not only empowered her audiences but also became a messiah for the LGBT community worldwide. By becoming a truly pan-Indian megastar, Sridevi achieved what many of our biggest heroes could not. She will forever remain an inspiration for generations of actresses to come”.