Out of this emerged Sridevi, shining brighter than the hundreds of rhinestones and diamantes on her (sometimes) terrible outfits. Against all odds, she became the first modern, female superstar Bollywood has known and would remain one of its favorite actors over five decades.
On February 24, at age 54, Sridevi was found dead in her Dubai hotel apartment bathtub. According to the forensic report, she drowned accidentally. This summer, her daughter’s debut film will be released. At the end of the year, Sridevi was slated to make a cameo appearance in a big budget Bollywood film. And before all of this, she had one of the best comebacks in Bollywood as the nervous, relatable entrepreneur Shashi in English Vinglish, one of the film industry’s best mainstream portrayals of a middle-aged Indian woman. The film was a hit, and starring a female protagonist in her late 40s—something rarely seen, even in Hollywood.
The year 1989 was a banner year for Sridevi—she had two huge hits that year. Despite being paired with big-ticket actors in both films, Sridevi was the real star of Chandni (Moonlight) and Chaalbaaz (Trickster). Although Chandni is the better film, in hindsight, it’s Chaalbaaz that deserves a place in popular Indian cinema’s hall of fame. After all, this is the film that gave us the beer-guzzling, thug-punching, rain-dancing Manju, one of Bollywood’s cutest, angriest, and most transgressive leading ladies. As played by Sridevi, Manju is magnetic. The first time we meet her, she pummels a group of men because she hasn’t been given her due payment. Manju lives alone, loves to drink, makes her living as a dancer, and isn’t above sweetly conning those who underestimate her. In short, she is the paragon of vice by Bollywood standards.
It’s tempting to imagine Manju was an embodiment of the swagger that must have been in Sridevi’s stride in the late 1980s. She’d managed the impossible in a deeply misogynist film industry—becoming an equal of male heroes. While her fees didn’t match the likes of Bollywood’s iconic men, Sridevi helped reduce the gap. At the height of her fame, she could name her price. “She’s no fluke,” said director Manmohan Desai, who recalled he didn’t cast her in his films because he couldn’t afford her. “Apart from her sex appeal she has enormous talent and is a superb actress. She deserves to be the number one.” Reportedly, Steven Spielberg pursued Sridevi for a minor role in Jurassic Park. She was at the height of Bollywood stardom—and refused.
From comedy to drama and action, Sridevi did it all. In Sadma (Trauma; a remake of her Tamil film Moondram Pirai), she was earnestly childlike as Nehalata, a young woman who suffers from retrograde amnesia. The actor displayed comic genius when she played a nosy journalist in Mr. India, directed by Shekhar Kapur, the BAFTA winner who also helmed Elizabeth. Remembering the actress, Kapur wrote, “You were the most exciting actress I ever worked with. Your energy on camera was scintillating. There was not a moment on screen that you did not have the audience in your grip.”