Any follower of Indian cinema would be pleased to find Sridevi thriving on a second innings in her acting career. The star of around 300 films had moved to Bollywood with enormous success after early stints in Tamil and other southern language films.
In sheer numbers, she must have gone past Vyjayanthimala, Rekha and Hema Malini who also had their roots in the south. What has now taken the film fraternity by surprise is the sharp turn that her screen personality has taken in her new avatar. Mom, which has just been released, follows the distinctly positive response to English Vinglish.
None of the hugely popular films that had turned Sridevi into a star in the 1980s — be it the blockbuster Chandni, Shekhar Kapur’s Mr India or the films she made with Balu Mahendra and K Balachander — can compare with the film that she appeared in after a gap of nearly 15 years. In terms of subtlety and treatment, English Vinglish was unlike anything she had done before and could easily be rated as her career-best performance.
Sridevi had slipped effortlessly into the role of a typical Indian woman driven into learning a language that was not part of her personality. T
he contradiction brings out the best in her while emphasising that language skills have nothing to do with the core of her Indianness. It was more difficult, perhaps, than anything that she had done during her long years of success. The fact that the film made in 2012 by a young debutant has helped re-launch her with a positive feedback is a good reason to pursue her interest in acting with an unmistakable shift in the scripts now written with Sridevi in mind.
The films revolve around the female protagonist. If English Vinglish is anything to go by, she has reinvented herself with supreme confidence in her own abilities.
This has given discerning viewers enough reason to expect that Mom will be an extension of the new image of the woman grappling with her social identity and her own emotional experiences. It has come five years after the start of her second innings, which was almost half a century since her first appearance on the screen.
She is understandably more circumspect about the roles since the final result depends largely on the central character. What has emerged are natural reserves of creative interest that may not have been evident when she was engaged in sharing a popular platform with the hero.
Female stars normally fade out after a few clearly defined years of stardom. Two exceptions are Hema Malini and Waheeda Rehman.
The former — the Dream Girl of the early 70s — had done two films by Gulzar. One of them, Lekin, was based on Tagore’s Kshudhita Pashan, surprisingly produced by Lata Mangeshkar.
It went on to win national awards for Gulzar’s lyrics and Bhanu Athaiya’s costume design. Gulzar also cast Hema Malini in Khushboowith Jeetendra while the hugely successful Baghban, made in 2003, found Hema Malini sharing honours with Amitabh Bachchan as parents who teach their uncaring sons a bitter lesson.
If she is still the unforgettable Basanti in Sholay and the extraordinary game-changer in Seeta Aur Geeta with all its glossy excesses, she has now adapted her screen personality to more restrained and credible depictions of characters closer to life.
This was further confirmed in Gul Bahar Singh’s biopic Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi in which Hema Malini played Vijaya Raje Scindia based on the book written by Mridula Sinha.
Here was a saga of a king who was loved by his subjects but who died prematurely, leaving behind a legacy of honesty and idealism that posed a great challenge to his wife, Vijaya Raje Scindia, in the discharge of her responsibilities.
As the king, it was perhaps Vinod Khanna’s last appearance on the screen. But the story of the courageous queen in a royal setting gave Hema Malini one of the best opportunities to express herself on the screen.
Gul Bahar has his roots in Kolkata and the film came through as a powerful reflection of a slice of history. Waheeda Rehman has a longer connection with the off-beat cinema before it officially came into being.
The films with Guru Dutt—Kagaz Ke Phool, Chaudavi Ke Chand and Saheb Bibi Ghulam — provided the impetus for socially relevant experiences like Teesri Kasam, Khamoshi (the Hindi version of Deep Jwele Jai) directed by Asit Sen that were finally capped by the unforgettable character of Gulabi in Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan.
The extraordinary connections were strong enough to give contemporary filmmakers the confidence to offer varied cameos in Rang De Basanti, 15 Park Avenue, Water and Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara.
The sheer variety lends substance to her second innings and distinguishes Waheeda Rehman from female co-stars of her generation. While Waheeda Rehman and Hema Malini have revealed the sensibilities that have resulted in a steady stream of meaningful contributions without the frills of stardom, Sridevi claims the confidence of young directors working on off-beat scripts revolving around her new screen personality.
It gives her an edge that also makes her task more challenging. But whether it is a cameo or a central character, it confirms the survival of natural talent.