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by Monojit Lahiri August 17 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 37 secs

On the occasion of her sixtieth birthday, 13th August, Monojit Lahiri salutes the memory of the matchless and timeless Ms Hawa Hawai!!

Bollywood is a dazzling universe. The ultimate, definitive, never-never-land-of-happy-ever-after for the stressed-out junta, dreaming of everything exciting, glamorous and romantic. The stars that rule this empire are not humans, but gods and goddesses. They are not merely loved and admired but worshipped by their hysterical devotees. However, there is a flip-side too, a terrifying side that shows how cruel and insensitive these very devotees can be once the star’s sell-by-date arrives.

Suddenly, collective amnesia from the hydra-headed monster called audiences can play havoc, dumping the once revered deities with alarming speed and replacing them with the latest, younger, hotter and more desirable flavours of the day. Very few are remembered, and hardly any saluted, once their golden days are over. As for considering them benchmarks and timeless icons, one can count on one’s fingers how many stars fit that elusive slot.

Sridevi, must belong to that rare breed whom neither can chill nor rival steal. Starting out at age 4 as a child-star and getting into the romantic mode at age of 10-11, this amazing performer, blending irresistible oomph with mischief, only had to appear on the screen to light it up in matchless fashion. A hugely successful star across all the Southern states, Sridevi was Bollywood’s first authentic female superstar.

Fact is she dominated the 80’s when the action was the main draw and heroes were centre stage. Her astonishing performances in Mr. India, Chaalbaaz and Nagina wiped out the male lead good and proper! In all truth, till date, no one has been able to replicate her mass-drawing with the audiences, trade and critics alike. The Chandni and Hawa-Hawai charmer who didn’t know a word of Hindi when she entered Bollywood, only to race past earlier Southie heavies like Vyjantimala and Hema Malini, was truly something phenomenal.

Today, as we look back on her body of work, we are zonked! The diversity of roles, the depth and range across genres is only one part of the story. The other is the astonishing ease and effortlessness with which she delivered her knock-out performances. Totally camera-friendly, uninhibited and spontaneous, a star is very difficult to locate, but Sridevi, time and again unleashed her brand of magic to mesmerise every viewer privileged to witness her chutzpah in action! Drama, romance, comedy, song-dance, she embraced the Bollywood template with a passion.

Finally coming to the point: What was so remarkable, special and exclusive that this amazingly shy, reticent and reserved person off-screen, brought to the screen? What did Sridevi have that no other heroine did?

Renowned author and editor Rauf Ahmed had said that “it was sensuousness of a very special kind. No heroine before Sri ever let go in such un-inhibited fashion, in the dance numbers. You see the 'kaante nahin kat-te' body language in Mr. India or the sizzling stuff in a Feroz Khan film - Har Kisiko - in Jaanbaaz, and it shakes you up! There is not one ounce of self-consciousness or vulgarity, only the wild abandon of romance. The super song-dance sequences in Chaalbaaz, Chandni and Lamhe, too, come into the reckoning. Like the legendary Garbo, she and the camera were magical soulmates, lovers, eternally romancing each other in style. The moment the camera was off, she, amazingly, returned to her quiet, shy and reserved self.”

Ahmed had also said to me that beyond the sensuousness, Sri was also an unmatched talent in the area of versatility. “Don’t forget, she started out with Jumping Jack Jeetu in pot-boilers like Himmatwala, Mawali, Justice Chowdhry, Tohfa etc. They were all films from the South and all very successful. They demanded a kind of loud and hammy-performance, which the young aspirant pulled off admirably. A quick learner, she matured in her journey by maintaining an intelligent focus on what her directors wanted from her and how best she could deliver. Never judgemental, be it Yash Chopra’s Lamhe and Chandni, Shekhar Kapoor’s Mr. India and Joshilay or Pankaj Parashar’s Chaalbaaz, she dazzled across all genres. Along the way, she also did a Sadma, inviting startled fans to wonder whether she was for real!”

English-Vinglish, directed by Gauri Shinde was Sri's successful comeback film, putting it down to a talent that is “instinctive, intuitive, spontaneous – a natural! It’s a gift that cannot be acquired through training or whatever. You are blessed with it – or not. Period.”

As we remember this remarkable talent, today, whose persona and work will always stay with us, one priceless line from one of her early interviews, resonates. I think it was with Vir Sanghvi.

It reminded me so much of what the legendary Hollywood Director, Sydney Pollack, articulated so succinctly about the art of acting. He said “Acting has nothing to do with intellectuality. An actor doesn’t need to understand in a conventional way what he’s doing. He has to just do it. It’s critical to make a distinction between a performance that produces behaviour and one that offers intellectual understanding. All effective acting comes from wanting something. It’s what you want that makes you do it, not what you think!”

RIP Chandni. Thanks for the Lamhes spent with you. You are no doubt rocking and Hawa-Hawai-ing the lucky ones in the packed hall above...

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