Sridevi, whose 58th birth anniversary falls today, went onto do over 300 films in her career, making her last on-screen appearance in Shah Rukh Khan's Zero
What does it mean to spend your growing years amidst the arclights toiling for your family? What is it like to not go to school and mug up dialogue sheets day after day, spending sleepless nights on sets? What is a childhood without any time for friends or even a picnic with your classmates? What is it like to grow up where you don't have much of a choice with your career? Born to an advocate father Ayyappan and a struggling actress Rajeswari, Sridevi was a busy child actress who didn't have much time to ponder over these questions.
It was quite common for actresses to bring their children onto sets in the early 50s and 60s in Madras and more often than not, the children's destinies too would be intertwined with cinema, much like their parents. In Sridevi's case, this was quite unintentional though. Her mother Rajeswari appeared in popular Telugu films like Bharya Bhartalu, Santhi Nivasam around 1960-61, but she wasn't destined to be cast as a leading lady. It so happened that Rajeswari accompanied by a barely 3-4-year-old Sridevi and actress Sowcar Janaki, were at the same studio, sometime in 1966.
The makers of the devotional drama Kandhan Karunai were in conversation with Sowcar Janaki about their inability to cast the right face for the younger version of Lord Murugan in the film. Sowcar Janaki (who wasn't part of the film though) had immediately set her eyes on a chirpy girl who was having the time of her life on sets, accompanying her mom and playing along happily with the other kids. There were no second thoughts; Janaki opined that her sharp features, sparkling eyes and innocent smile would be more than a handful for the role.
Having a girl play the younger version of a male God wasn't an element of concern at all, given Sridevi was only a three-year-old. The film was an instant success. The young girl was a picture of confidence in front of the camera and the cynosure of all eyes upon the film's release. While child actors had more or less stuck to the specifics provided by directors or assistants, Sridevi went a step ahead purely because of her presence of mind. She knew to conduct herself in front of the camera even when she didn't have a dialogue. No film school can really teach that.
Offers poured along such that Sridevi turned out to be the breadwinner of her household soon. The film set was her playground, it was a second home where she spent more time than her home itself. Between her packed schedules, Sridevi was home-schooled for a few years before the young girl found it tough to strike a balance between academics and films. The choice was a no-brainer, after all - livelihood was the priority. The prime years of her life were 'lost' on film sets donning the greasepaint or do we say she found her true calling that way?
Her life on film sets wasn't without its element of fun. A young Kamal Haasan and Sridevi struck a rapport as kids, sharing lunches, idling away time in between shots and pranking each other once in a time. She lived in the neighbourhood that also housed the family of scholar Nidadavolu Venkat Rao and was particularly close to his daughter, Subhashini (who would also become an actress), whom she addressed as 'Subbamma' and played with her regularly. Many years later, several co-stars would reminisce that Sridevi kept the child in her intact till the last breath.
The male-dominated film industry in Madras was a potentially exploitative place for women and children. Though Rajeswari did shield Sridevi from the notorious side of the film world to the best of her abilities, the 'unwritten' norms of the industry may have forced Sridevi to mature early. Only a handful of popular child actors transformed into capable performers on the cusp of adulthood and it took some grooming for Sridevi to find her feet in her next phase as an actor. She looked to be a woman in a hurry, particularly evident from her appearance in the 1975-release Anuraagalu, her first in a lead role when she was just a 13-year-old.
Sridevi played a lead role in other films like Dasari Narayana Rao's Bangarakka, K Balachander's Moondru Mudicchu, Sivakumar-starrer Kavikkuyil but it took a Bharathiraja to masterfully groom the awkward teenager into a fine performer with 16 Vayathinile. She played a 16-year-old girl, who just passed her tenth board exams in flying colours and aspired to become a teacher. The role is indicative of what Sridevi's ambitions would've been if only she wasn't bitten by the film bug. The woman in the film fails to make the right choices with her love interests and pays a price for it later. For Sridevi, in real life, though, the film's success and the acclaim for her performance was proof that nothing other than cinema could've been the right choice for her.
The Telugu remake of 16 Vayathinile (Padaharella Vayasu) too, helmed by star-maker K Raghavendra Rao, turned the tide for her and established her as a commercially bankable actress. The filmmaker understands his heroines like no other, capitalising on their strengths, masking their limitations with admirable control. Under his supervision, Sridevi blossomed. Vetagadu, her first full-fledged commercial film in a lead role, was a complete package of her abilities, from her comic timing to sensual appeal to her ease with the song-dance routine and terrific fashion sense.
Sridevi knew no world beyond films, had a 'caged' childhood without sufficient worldly exposure and it isn't surprising that she remained a socially awkward, private person all her life. The fact that audiences from various industries continue to own up to her legacy even today says enough about the impact she has left behind in a career that lasted over 300-odd films. She tasted the highs, lows and the brutality of life early but whenever she was on-screen, she only gave us joy!