Even in a world like Bollywood where stars are born every so often, Sridevi was a phenomenon – described as the first female “superstar” — she is being remembered not just by fans in India, but around the world. Details are still emerging about her untimely death Feb. 24, but it has saddened Indians in North America whose television screens are playing songs and movies of the woman who started as a child actor and rose to become a Bollywood sweetheart, left the scene for 15 years only to stage a resounding comeback at the age of 50, unusual in any film industry. News channels from BBC to CNN featured the star, and Twitter lit up with tributes and tears on her untimely death in Dubai at the age of 54.
“It is a great shock to our community. We grew up with her and she was a heartthrob for many of us,” said Ranganathan “Ranga” Purushottaman, president of the New York Tamil Sangam, adding, “We loved her from the beginning.”
Familiarity with Sridevi spreads across generations, according to Purushottaman. ” Even our children know her, with her latest movie “English-Vinglish” which had a great effect on us NRIs,” he said, referring to non-resident Indians.
Sridevi’s remarkable comeback in “English Vinglish” at the age of 50, “was very significant for the Indian diaspora,” says Rochona Majumdar, associate professor in the Departments of Cinema and Media Studies, South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. “It spoke to a generation of middle and upper middle-class women who had an English handicap,” said Majumdar, who is a “huge” fan of Sridevi and feels a sense of personal loss. Majumdar also pointed to “English Vinglish” portraying the Indian-American community in the U.S. “The Indian diaspora got to see how they are absorbing and melting into the American environment. And it was a very cosmopolitan environment that director Gauri Shinde showed, in which she (Sridevi) was very good,” Majumdar added.
On her own Twitter handle @SrideviBKapoor, the actor describes her life journey in five words – “Actor-MOM-Housewife-Actor Again!” joyful with her return to conquer the screen in 2012, after a 15-year hiatus.
Seeing the Bollywood actress on screen, one would be hard put to believe her off-screen persona was different, says Dr. Sudhir Parikh, who recalls her as the Grand Marshal of the Federation of Indian Association’s India Day Parade of 1996, in New York City, of which he was a Grand Sponsor. Dr. Parikh is the publisher of Desi Talk and recipient of India’s Padma Shri award.
“If you look at movies, you would think she was very bubbly. But in reality she was very shy,” Dr. Parikh said. He recalls how when she was asked to address the audience as the Grand Marshal, the woman who stole millions of hearts with her screen appearances, gave a brief two-minute speech.
“On behalf of the Chairman, Board Of Trustees & the Executive Committee, our condolences to the Kapoor family. This is a dark day for the Indian film industry. We will pray to almighty god to give her departed soul peace and all strength to her family to go through this tough times,” the FIA said in a statement on Sridevi’s demise.
One fan said it best on Twitter responding to a recent article on Sridevi’s life – “Bheed me rehkar Bheed se alag dikhna is something she has been doing time and again…” (Being in a crowd yet being distinct is what she has been doing time and again).
Sridevi had already been a phenomenon in Tamil and Telugu films before she came to Bollywood, says Professor Gyan Prakash, who teaches history at Princeton and has included Bollywood in some of his courses. “In Bollywood, she could navigate both comedy and intensely emotional roles with ease – intensity in “Chandni” and comedy in “Mr. India.” There are not many in Bollywood who could cover this kind of range,” said Prakash, whose book on Mumbai was made into the film “Bombay Velvet.”
People hailing from South India and living in the United States, have been listening to the continuous replay of the memorable song, Kanne Kalaimane” from her 1980s film with screen idol Kamal Haasan – “Moondram Tirai” (loosely translated to mean 3rd day of the new moon). “She was so innocent in that movie, nobody can forget that,” Purushottaman recalls, reminiscing further about the song that was composed by poet Kannadasan, who gave then child-actor Sridevi her first role as God Muruga in “Thunalvan.”
“The Telugu community in New York knows Sridevi well as she came here for a meet-and-greet with our organization in 2010, and also because her mother was treated by Dr. Nori Dattatreyudu in the 1990s,” said Dr. Jyothi Jasti, joint secretary of the Telugu Literary and Cultural Association. Remembering growing up watching Sridevi, Dr. Jasti told Desi Talk it was a big loss for the community. “And as a woman – she did women proud, carrying herself with grace and dignity, being extremely talented,”
After her sudden death, “All of us have connected and talked about her as one of us. She was not just a celluloid figure,” Dr. Jasti added. “She held a special place in all women’s hearts.” Dharmarao Thapi, president of the TLCA, said Sridevi’s death was a loss to the community and the Telugu film industry. His memories go far back to when his father, Thapi Chanakya, directed a movie with Sridevi, “Vidhi Vilasam” around 1971, he told Desi Talk. “We all know of how quickly she reached the top, and in multiple languages,” Thapi said.
“What’s particular about Sridevi is she worked in five different languages, Malayalee, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, and now English – which was remarkable,” Majumdar said. Her first “encounter” with Sridevi, was in the film “Himmatwale” with actor Jitendra, she says. “That kind of dancing was not seen until then,” she adds, using the words, “vigorous”, “mind boggling” and “kinesthetic. The same in “Mr. India.”
Indo-British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, who met Sridevi very recently at a get-together hosted by fashion designer Manish Malhotra, told BBC the Sridevi was, “completely and utterly, a force of nature on her own.” adding, “She is, and I don’t use the world lightly, an Icon.”
On Feb. 21, just 3 days before her death, Sridevi retweeted Malhotra’s message that included her picture in one of his creations. “Timeless and elegant, @SrideviBKapoor looks regal in a classic #ManishMalhotraLabel Cotton Couture 2018 creation,” Malhotra says. Earlier in February, she tweeted out Mahashivratri and Valentine’s Day greetings.
Almost verging on a premonition, on Feb. 12, she also retweeted an in-depth article on her life carried in TheNewsMinute, entitled, “From child artist to formidable veteran, how Sridevi has ruled hearts for five decades,” tracing her career since she was four years old.