If Bollywood is the world’s biggest film industry, then Sridevi was its queen

If Bollywood is the world’s biggest film industry, then Sridevi was its queen
AP Images via CNN

The death of Bollywood icon Sridevi has prompted an outpouring of grief across the Indian subcontinent, where her strong female-led movies dominated the box office throughout the ’80s and ’90s, helping to redefine the role of women in South Asian cinema.

If Bollywood is the world’s biggest film industry, then Sridevi was undoubtedly its queen. Her funeral, held in Mumbai Wednesday, attracted the cream of Indian cinema, as well as thousands of mourners who lined the streets around the crematorium to pay their final respects.

The industry’s first major breakout superstar, Sridevi’s fame coincided with a period of growing consumer wealth within India, as younger audiences looked to cinema to provide a new, more metropolitan identity.

The result was an entire generation of young women, across India and beyond, who came of age inspired by Sridevi’s onscreen performances, dance-routines and songs.

In arguably her most famous role as investigative journalist Seema Sohnithe, in the 1987 superhero blockbuster-smash “Mr India,” Sridevi redefined the typical damsel in distress female lead, mixing a daring sexuality with intelligence and comic charm to outsmart the bad guys.

But it was while wearing a blue sari and soaked in the rain that Sridevi created the movie’s most iconic moment, as she danced seductively with an invisible lover, crooning “I love you” to the hit song “Khate Nahi Kat.”

Birth of an icon

Born Shree Amma Yanger Ayyapan, on August 13, 1963, she later changed her name to Sridevi, Hindi for “goddess.”

To her fans, the choice of name was apt, though she was viewed as a female icon, confronting and smashing gender stereotypes, she was equally revered for her glamorous style — epitomized by her effervescent chiffon saris and kohl-rimmed big black eyes.

“Sridevi was a star, she could be anything, she could do what men could do and do it better,” says Harneet Singh, a Mumbai-based Bollywood journalist and screenwriter who has chronicled much of Sridevi’s career.

According to Singh, Sridevi was the ultimate Bollywood actress who was “beautiful and sensuous,” but also “an adorable klutz, who challenged the situations she was placed in, and always came out strong and triumphant.”

She was an icon within India’s nascent often repressed LGBTQ community, too, where her larger than life persona was embraced as a figure of empowerment.

Speaking to CNN, Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian cultures and cinema at SOAS University in London, said Sridevi projected an image of the “hyper feminine ideal.”

“Her dances were often performed in drag acts. Her style of makeup and her elaborate costumes could be imitated along with her great dances,” said Dwyer.

Her fame was such that it spread throughout the subcontinent. In 1980s Pakistan, Bollywood movies were banned, but that didn’t stop fans from watching her films on pirated videocassettes, sometimes with grainy footage.

Speaking to CNN, Islamabad based journalist Maha Mussadaq recalled how her aunts and older cousins would dance to Sridevi’s iconic songs, “their hands twirling to the music just like Sridevi, and me sitting there wishing I could grow up to be just like her.”

In an emotional post on Facebook, popular Islamabad-based actor and writer Osman Khalid Butt spoke of how Sridevi’s passing was “inconceivable” and “personal.”

“(She was the reason) I wanted to become an actor,” said Khalid Butt.

Child star

Sridevi made her film debut as a child actor at the age of four in “Thunaivan,” a Tamil Hindu drama directed by M.A. Thirumugham.

Sridevi’s credits span Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada language films. Her first leading Bollywood role came in the 1979 Hindi film “Solva Sawan.” Four years later, Sridevi broke through to the list of Bollywood’s most highly sought-after actresses with the action comedy “Himmatwala.”

She went on to star in more than 300 films, including some of the most watched films of the ’80s and ’90s, with notable hits “Mawaali” (1983), “Tohfa” (1984), “Nagina” (1986), “Mr. India” (1987), “Chandni” (1989), “Lamhe” (1991) and “Gumrah” (1993).

At the peak of her career in 1997, Sridevi walked away from it all to become a mother, a role she later described as giving her “the greatest joy.”

In an industry where ageism thrives and youth is a prized commodity, Sridevi defied the odds when she made her triumphant return to cinema at age 49 with the film “English Vinglish” in 2012, breaking box office records in the role of an ignored housewife learning English.

She repeated the feat again in 2017 when her film “Mom” about a mother seeking vengeance for the rape of her daughter opened to critical acclaim.

“Sridevi is one of the last great heroines of Hindi cinema who could hold her own against any hero,” said SOAS professor Dwyer.

“A great beauty, a talented actress, a brilliant dancer, a delightful comedienne, she is a true legend.”