When someone dies, all that remains is a void and a sense of regret. Sridevi’s sudden death has done just that. How could someone so beautiful and still so young, go away so suddenly? India will mourn her going away for many years to come.
At the height of her super stardom, Sridevi was the ultimate diva. She was often called India’s first female superstar (may be, Hema Malini too could be labelled so). However, Sridevi dominated the popular cinema space like a colossus -- she came to Hindi cinema, at the height of her power in Tamil and Telugu cinema. Think of it -- how many south Indian actresses can say that they had worked with Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth in more than 20 films each? Not many and that is what Sridevi had done. She dominated which ever industry she worked in.
Her arrival on the Hindi film screen with Himmatwala (1983; though Sridevi had starred in a film called Solva Saawan which sank without a trace) coincided with the arrival of three other mega stars from South in the late 70s and early 80s -- Kamal Haasan (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1981), Rajinikanth (Andha Kanoon, 1983) and Jaya Prada (Sargam, 1979). While the two men had to bite the humble dust and return to Chennai, the fortunes of the two golden girls from South soared.
Sridevi and Jaya Prada with Jeetendra in Tohfa
Contemporaries and rivals in south cinema, the two lovely ladies continued their march into the Hindi filmdom as well. At one time in the mid 1980s, the Sridevi-Jeetendra-Jaya Prada casting in films became a staple. Sridevi worked in nearly 18 films with Jeetendra, while she did as many as nine films with Jaya Prada.
As both Sridevi and Jaya Prada came into Hindi films around the same time and both saw success, it was not possible that their respective careers wouldn’t cross paths. In reality too, they were quite different -- Sridevi standing tall at 5’5” (five and half feet) was quite a contrast to the more diminutive Jaya Prada at 5’2”.
What Jaya lacked in height, she more than made it up in beauty. Jaya had arguably one of the most perfect faces Indian screen has seen. So much so, that even the reticent cinematic maestro Satyajit Ray is said to have called her “the most beautiful face on the Indian screen”. Rare praise for sure.
Both Sridevi and Jaya Prada were accomplished dancers – some reports suggest Jaya Prada was even a trained dancer. All songs featuring these two actresses were sure to feature lot of dances. In fact, in the movie Maqsad, in the song Ajao Nagraja Tum Ajao, one can see the two ladies, matching step for step. And while, the song itself isn’t a face-off, one can sense that in real life, the two must have been keen competitors.
They worked in a number of films together -- matching steps in dances and mouthing clap-worthy dialogues with aplomb. In time, Sridevi would edge past Jaya. While Jaya went on to deliver hits like Sharaabi (opposite Amitabh Bachchan) and Sanjog (where the story revolved around her), soon she would get sidelined. Sridevi arrived as a leading lady in Mumbai, riding on the success of films made by southern banners. However, her journey was not without its share of ridicule – film magazines of the time had termed her ‘thunder thighs’. The actor soon graduated to meatier roles and was soon giving stiff competition to her contemporaries Rati Agnihotri, Padmini Kolhapuri and Poonam Dhillon and later edging them out. This was when the directors and script writers started taking note of her and roles began to be written for Sridevi -- Yash Chopra made Chandni (1989), Shekhar Kapoor did Mr India (1987), Pankaj Parashar gave her Chalbaaz (1989, remake of ‘70s hit Seeta Aur Geeta), she did Nagina (1986) with Rishi Kapoor and Nigahen with Sunny Deol (1989), Yash Chopra’s Lamhe came in 1991 and Khuda Gawah with Amitabh Bachchan in 1992.
With Rishi Kapoor in Chandni
From the mid 80s to early 90s, no one could touch Sridevi. Her clout over the box office was complete. By this time, Jaya Prada had faded out of limelight. Sridevi too had changed dramatically; gone were her rough edges -- she had trimmed down dramatically and she looked her best during this period. Such was her grip that she was soon called the female Bachchan of Bollywood.
Then, towards the end of the ‘80s, came another challenge to Sridevi – the name was Madhuri Dixit. Though, Madhuri made her debut in 1984 with Rajshri Productions’ Abodh, it was N Chandra’s Tezaab (1988) that catapulted her into stardom. Her Eik-Doh-Teen was a trail blazer. Madhuri was this young beauty -- a photographer’s delight with a near perfect face, amazingly talented dancer, a smile that lit a million hearts, and with verve and energy unmatched.
Madhuri Dixit in Sailaab.
This was serious challenge -- by then, Sridevi had bid farewell to her ‘thunder thigh’ gauche ways. Sridevi had metamorphosed into a swan, a sophisticate. After all, she was Yash Chopra’s chiffon girl. A younger Madhuri had magnetism, while Sridevi was turning in sophistication. Madhuri had a perfect face, while Sridevi, some would say, structured her face to perfection. Madhuri was soon becoming the toast of Bollywood’s leading men -- she was appearing with an amazing array of actors -- Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Jackie Shroff, Govinda, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Sanjay Dutt, even an ageing Vinod Khanna, while Sridevi was getting restricted to Anil Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, etc. Sridevi’s Hindi (and her pronunciation) had always been questionable while Madhuri had the perfect diction.
Madhuri Dixit and Anil Kapoor in Ram Lakhan.
There was no end to their differences. Whether or not they were such arch rivals in real, one will never know. However, what was certain was that glossy magazines of the day had a field day, pitting one against the other.
Then, Roop Ki Raani Choron Ka Raja released in 1993 and bombed at the box office. It was a huge setback in Sridevi’s glorious career, one that damaged her prospects in a major way. Also, by now, her personal life was taking precedence over her professional life. After spending decades in film industries, she chose to marry and have children.
In 1994, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! released and Madhuri’s domination was complete and would remain so till her marriage in 1999.