[VoxSpace Exclusive] 189 Seconds With Sridevi : How The Superstar Defined Our Ideology By Refusing Us An Interview

June 23rd, 2017, Preview Theatre, Ramanaidu Studios

What makes someone a superstar? Is it their body of work or is it the unsaid poise with which they carry themselves? Mohan Satyajit and I, have often asked ourselves this question. Although not exactly about superstars, truth be told. But about anyone great, you see. What makes them great? Is it the past that they proudly present or the promise of future that they dictate? The answer perhaps was a combination, I suppose. What you do because of what you already did, makes you legendary. All great people, legends in their own right, had this quant dominance about them. They had the power to liven up the whole room to attention, excite the thoughts of many a slumber minds, and transport them to a trance-like plane, where everything looked so easy and beautiful. But then we came across a woman, who walked in through the door, with an off-white intricately designed sari, heavily embroidered borders, and a shine in her eyes, perhaps paralleling the fierceness of the sun itself. She was the one they called Sridevi.

As she entered the door, right after the preview screening of her latest feature film, she quickly scanned the whole gathering of press, in one sweeping glance. Although we had pulled some strings and tried to vouch in an exclusive interview with her, we were plainly and politely refused it. We were then forced to join the other horde of journalists, like no one special. And the cameras went off into a frenzy right away.

To a woman who had faced the cameras almost all her life, she maintained a slight shiver in her demeanour, as though she was facing them for the first time. Make no mistake, the shiver was only momentary, replaced ever so quickly by her broad angelic smile. One would argue that she just whispered hello’s and namaste’s but such was the aura of her, that it seemed to resonate all across the room, and was heard clearly by all.

Who was standing beside her, walking around her, asking her to mind her phone which was ringing, or handing her a bouquet, was irrelevant? They were, for the lack of a better word, out of focus.

Here was Sridevi, and nothing else truly mattered. Her aura escalated with each step she took, and by every wave of a hand. Saying she was exquisitely beautiful would be a drooling understatement. Sridevi was a spectacle so strong, that her mere presence questioned the stoic strength and honour of every man in the room. I had never seen so many men kneel down in submission to the very presence of a woman, figuratively. It didn’t matter if they clicked pictures, it didn’t matter if they took selfies or bytes or reported the event (usually in that order sadly these days). It didn’t matter if they were alive in those moments. The mere sight of Sridevi was both overwhelming and overpowering.

Like a strong flood, which makes you lay bare on the ground, utterly defeated, and accepting your fate, her audacious aura made merry of men. Sridevi, Mohan and I, in those moments understood, had indirectly and inadvertently, given us the honour to even exist in the room. To perhaps a billion people, outside this room, and all over the world, Sridevi was merely a successful actor or an accomplished star. To us, in that room, those billion people were fools.

February 25th, 2018 – The Legendary Actress Passes Away

On a serene Sunday, as the darkness of the night touched its thickest black, the world was awakened to a news that Sridevi had passed away. Tweets, push notifications, breaking news montages and special feature bulletins, erupted across the nation, which confirmed a surreal and utterly unbelievable news. Sridevi was indeed no more. And as the affirmation pushed through like a wildfire all across, as a journalist and someone priding over his range of groundbreaking stories, I felt the first pangs of defeat. Why? As I put the TV on mute, and shut down my laptop, post reading as much as I could about the causes of death, and walked to pour myself the last peg of rum as the twilight seeped across the sky, I was left wondering about a strange feeling. Of an unexpected and incomprehensible loss. No, no, not just that. It seemed so close and personal, almost as if I knew this legendary actress, that I couldn’t place my grief. I was sad, and for the first time in a long long time, soul touched. I had lost it. Lost the opportunity. I cursed under my breath, remembering the vow I had made to myself, to talk to her someday. To know the story behind the enigma, whose personal history has always been so closely guarded, that the curious dog that I am, it makes me lose my sleep. But why you might ask? Wasn’t I just one among almost a billion people across the nation, who felt suddenly robbed off someone close? This was something greater. The grief was greater. Because I had seen her, only to never see her again.

I had felt her splendour in the humble room of reporters, and in her graceful coy. I had her memory, and that was my curse. And I had a few moments where she looked straight into my eyes. These moments, it still is an impossible task to erase from my memory. So then and therefore, I decided that I would have to do something, that I thought I was good at. Write down about those bunch of seconds.

So, today I do not have any story for you. Today I do not have the courage of speaking about something, except my disappointment in doing what was urgent and important. Today I shall weep at my limitation of being a journalist. Just a journalist. For I could not fulfil my promise, one which I had made to myself, that one day I shall bring the story of Sridevi to the world. Today, my dear friend, I remain defeated by the destiny. All I can bring to you, perhaps, in a comprehensive manner, is the mental imagery of my 189 seconds with a woman they call the Goddess of Modern Indian Cinema. That is all I have, rather will have, forever, as a testament to a superstar, the world knew, and the woman I could never talk to…

Chapter One: The First Sixty Seconds – “Nothing Is Important”

To perhaps a billion people, outside this room, and all over the world, Sridevi was perhaps merely a successful actor or an accomplished star. To us, in that room, those billion people were fools.

One major advantage of flashing your press card is you get to ask questions which represent the state of mind of a whole community. A reporter/journalist becomes the voice of the general public which often at times has no access to some personalities. And so a few of my colleagues stepped forward, and an unsaid queue was formulated as a semi-circle around Sridevi. And the first question I heard was – “Madam, when are you doing Mr India?”. The journalist was from National media, as he never let go of a moment, to flaunt his ID, and never stopped for a second to formulate a thought. Sridevi, in the spectacular array of flashes which went off, remained composed and managed to smile back at this journalist. She says “That you should ask, Boney Kapoor Ji”. It didn’t matter. Absolutely. No one needed an answer from her, just the way she spoke out made the answer for itself. The next dozen of questions essentially asked her about her latest movie, Mom. One which was being presented. As she calmly started answering the queries, a stout looking middle-aged man, ushered through the press, crossed Sridevi, wiggled through the rest of the crowd, and reached the other end of the room. Sridevi, perhaps knew who this man was, as her gaze momentarily followed him to a wooden door. After a couple of blinks, she got back to staring at the camera lenses.

What was I supposed to do there? Is there a question that Sridevi hasn’t answered yet in her illustrious 50-year career? Is there a concern that has bothered her, which the introvert of Sridevi, would divulge after 300 movies across almost all the major filmmaking languages in India? She had consumed cinema, movie and show business so much, that it was to a sheepish embarrassment of a thinking mind, that there was something more to her. It was like asking Sachin Tendulkar, a question or two about Batting. Yes, he might be patient enough to answer, but there are high chances that you will be embarrassed all the same. Sridevi might have been a gracious being that day, but asking her any question, about her movies, career or life, was morally suicidal.

People like Sridevi, are a treasured rarity. These are the people who drown into an ocean of commitment and industry, and when they emerge out of its depths, they do so with so much of experiential knowledge, that anything else, looks absolutely juvenile. And yet there was a shiver. A soft, almost unrecognizable, shiver in her voice. A shiver which resonated the idea of Sridevi, who had always been a bit apprehensive of the interviews and reporters. An introvert to the truest sense of the word. Every time she faced a camera, she was nervous. But every time she faced the camera, she faced her demons, and on every occasion, she won.

In doing so, Sridevi over her life and career had become an embodiment of progressive confidence. To fight every day, and to win every day. Sridevi wasn’t going to be celebrated in the history books, because of her impeccable sense of humour, or irreplaceable poise in acting, or the way in which her career unfolded. But in my humble opinion, Sridevi will be remembered more for her spirit of taking up challenges never thought of before and winning over them so spectacularly well, that it would seem utterly easy for the generations to come ahead.

February 27th 2018 – The Dissection Of A Death

As the world woke up to the demise of Sridevi, one thing was clear, the death was not going to be left alone. She ruled over a million hearts in the country, and each heart had a million questions which were to be left unanswered. The real tragedy started almost a day through, after the tributes and testaments. A fair rumour came afloat that Sridevi might have died under unexplainable circumstances. Like a hound chasing a bone, the over-zealous press media galloped to the story. Privacy, decency, logic and natural morality were all left aside. Journalists left no stone unturned, in making literal merry of the situation, milking outrageous theories out, for their ratings to plummet up. It presented to me an irony of news coverage. Journalists who were dumbstruck by her beauty, and felt privileged to be in her presence, almost a year before, now let go of any human decency in dissecting her death. The Goddess had fallen, and now the curse of being a mere mortal lurked over her. The aura was gone, and she had walked into the shadows.

The news covered her death, with theories and practical explanations. The justification for doing so, after much backlash from the fans and admirers alike, was that “In order to bring news to people in the swiftest manner possible, we have to dramatize it with visual effects and representations. We are journalists, and we know what we are doing. Our news is not for the people who remain intellectually aware of the incident, but for the rural populace who have a hard time in processing our news owing to its complications. If you don’t like how we are doing the business, don’t watch our channel”. This was the practical explanation that news channel, Mahaa News came out with when its reporter was trolled for getting into a Bathtub, to enact how and why Sridevi could have met with her accident, by slipping into the water. Enacted, being the keyword about the theory proofing, about India’s biggest actor, Sridevi. The irony, don’t you think?

While as the Goddess of Indian Cinema, ascended to her heavenly throne, some dissected the death basing on the ‘fact’ that surgeries and hormones did her no good. They had opinions on her beauty, or rather the lengths that she went to, to keep her beauty intact, as they would say. These hypocritical sentences made me laugh out loud. She was meant to be beautiful. She was a star, nay superstar, nay an iconic star, who would have to meet, greet and celebrate fan-hood from every corner of the world, every second of her life. She lived her way, in the best way she could. It’s so ironical, that people who themselves look mediocre or outright ugly, should get onto social media and talk about her beauty. One wonders if these statements, assumptions stem from the fact that they will never reach the summits of endearment, that Sridevi till her last breath attained. To these hypocrites, I could think of only a few things to say. First of all, what she does to her body, if at all, is her choice? I bet if you had the responsibility of looking good every second of your life, and the resources to make it happen, you’d be the same? And before judging Sridevi for the decisions she took for herself, would you say that you are truly equipped to understand her? You are a nobody, much like myself. So when you can’t appreciate the phenomenon of Sridevi, at least keep your ignorant mouth shut.

Chapter Two: The Next Sixty Seconds – “Everything Is Essential”

“What made you sign up Mom, Sridevi garu?” asked one of my colleagues. She had already answered that in response to the question “Why did you choose Mom after English Vinglish?”. No, but, this colleague had no other question. This is what he had prepared strenuously for the past half an hour. It was clear that he was on the last minute assignment. Absolutely no idea what he was doing there. That’s the deal with the preparation levels of some lazy bums. Thankfully, Sridevi smiled and opted to answer something else. A question that Mohan Satyajit swung out, unbeknownst to me.

“How much of the movie ‘Mom’ reflects you, ma’am, as we know you’ve been very protective and careful about the projects your children take? Is this movie speaking of just a character or Sridevi?”

Then there was an answer. “I am similar to Mom, but not as much also. Hope you will see that”. That was it. That was the answer. Did she voluntarily keep it simple? Was she perhaps saying that she wasn’t particularly like the lead role in the movie Mom? It took us, a further two weeks to understand what she meant. In an interview with an acclaimed critic, Rajeev Masand she answered a similar question by saying – Mom portrayed aspects of her, most of which were true to her, especially in a manner of taking care of her daughter, Jahnavi.

However, she only added to the answer saying that she was a strict mom, in real life, but she knew where she had to give freedom to her children. Responsibility was the key. She couldn’t be with them, what her mom was with her. It was an interesting point which I as a writer pondered for quite some while. How much of ourselves is actually originally us? Where do we reflect our own parents, and in defying them aren’t we actually turning into them? Sridevi, perhaps was a different mother than her own, as she wouldn’t agree with the word ‘better’ to be used. Afterall, almost anyone closely following her story would only be a fool to discount the participation and influences Sridevi’s mother had on her. Personally, financially, professionally and psychologically, Sridevi was a vague, if not clear, shadow of her mother. We can never know and we never will. What we will know of course is the fact that Sridevi’s inherent charm and a seeming vulnerability was enough to pride a man to be in love with her. What added to the whole aura of Sridevi, in that place of packed reporters, most of them her admirers, was that she never lost her cool. A rare stoicism which often is lacking in the modern day atypical heroine. I can’t place an A-lister Heroine, to remain so calm and deal with stupidity with such elan, as Sridevi did. And mind you, there was stupidity prevailing to the hilt. It was in these moments, the stout looking middle-aged man, came swiftly into the crowd and signalled her to walk away.

February 28th 2018 – The Mortal Remains

Death by accidental drowning. The statement was released. Wasn’t that enough? The press started demanding answers? Were they truly suspecting something or were they indicting a particular individual? What was running in their heads, no one knows. The conspiracy theories, with visual recreations, went crazier by the hour. Agreed. There were some unanswered questions. Yes, everything was not perfectly alright. But consider this. When you deal with an unexpected death of an iconic personality, you always have some things unresolved. Now, one thing I fail to understand is this – If the police and the administration have given out their statement regarding the cause of death, why exactly is the media speculating anything? Therein ends the matter isn’t it? If the family is at peace with the reports and investigations, who are the people to remain unsatisfied?

After all, Sridevi was a woman, who was beloved by her family, like us most. Her death was a private happening. What justifies the intrusion of this privacy, I fail to understand. If half the country was demanding answers for unresolved issues like Fodder Scam, PNB Scam, Aadhar Devolvement, Demonetization figures, or Naturopathy resolutions, well the country would have been different. But no, we need answers about a woman who died amongst her family. On death, the poor superstar had suddenly become public property. Some would shamelessly argue that ‘movie stars’ are stars because we have accepted them as our own. That is utter nonsense. We accept no one and make them a star. We accept just the person and the story behind the image. Also, we accept the idea of someone representing us or enthralling us in ways we couldn’t entertain ourselves, temporarily. Even so, within that logic, no one should be a superstar after they move out of their prime. Well, that is the discussion for a whole new article. This present rant is, of course, towards understanding how we as a society devolve into chaos and confusion when someone of prominence and such prominence as Sridevi passes away suddenly.

I watched as Sridevi was carried in a huge caravan across the roads of Mumbai, accompanied by an ocean of her admirers and fans. They weren’t there because of unresolved questions. They were there because of the unconditional love they had for the person, Sridevi. The person who represented them in ways even she might have not entirely understood. In her death, one of her biggest assets in life, made her pass on to the next world, in peace. The asset was simple – Her Privacy. As a star, it was always easy for Sridevi to have raked up a controversy, or say something unruly, or behave brutishly or throw the proverbial tantrums. Was it pure good fortune then, that her image in the public was never tarnished? She saw through her entire life that she was never appearing unkempt, both in her words and in the way she looked. Absolute stardom required absolute sacrifice. Sridevi was one of the very few people, all across the world, to have understood that. There was not a single blemish on her personality, and therefore she was playing the role she was given by God himself. She was playing the role of a superstar all through, in every second of her life. And as was the case with most of her movie roles, she wasn’t just playing the role. She was living the role of her lifetime. She was brilliant for 54 years.

Chapter Three: The Moments Remaining

“The story appealed to me, and I immediately wanted to do it. Simple. It is socially important that these movies should come out. Hyderabad is my home. I have practically grown up here. Even my daughters, they consider Hyderabad their home. It is like coming back to my home. You come home when you know you are loved. Hyderabad, I’m sure will bless my movie, Mom, to be a grand success….”

References to her collaborations with Megastar Chiranjeevi came about by a reporter. Although it wasn’t a relevant question, I was carried back to times when Sridevi ruled the Telugu Film Industry. What am I even saying? She was ruling Indian Film Industry, back then. And here was this woman, in front of me, as one question crept up to my consciousness. Would she have worked or seen or greeted perhaps every actor and technician in the country? In my mind, I had already answered the question. That wouldn’t be possible. But this was Sridevi. If ever there was someone who could achieve that feat, transcend borders of every kind and succeed everywhere, it would have to be her. I suppose that was what they refer to when they say, After a time, Success becomes a habit and further an addiction. As she gracefully walked past us, and the last moments in her presence were coming to an end, I realized that I had done literally nothing. Well to my consolation, neither did almost a dozen other journalists. I guess sometimes you are so awestruck and overwhelmed by what is happening around you that you don’t feel like disturbing the flow of events.

Sridevi walked through the wooden door, and the stout middle-aged man accompanied her inside, shutting the door behind him. As for us, Mohan and I, turned to the biscuits and chai being given at a corner. It was in these moments, of coming out of a trance, that I realized that she hadn’t actually affected anyone. Everyone seemed to be moving around with purpose. They were here for a reason, and they had done their task. Now, they had to head out to cover another story. Who had the time? So did that mean that my comrades and colleagues were faking their admiration? Who knows? Maybe they were. Maybe to them, Sridevi was just a story and her presence was an event to be covered. That’s about it. In essence, everyone knew what was what. Admiration and enthusiasm, pestering and calmness, questions and answers, were already a norm of the trade. They were trained. To act. This made me, in a strange way, much more inclined to bring out Sridevi’s story. A question as to how much of this paparazzi she had seen in her life, was a baffling thought in itself. Owing to which, her real life remained carefully private. Everyone was behaving in a particular manner. It is then that it struck me. My colleagues weren’t asking her any private questions. Nothing about her life, except for what Mohan asked. An hour later, I came to realise that everyone had been briefed to stick to questions only related to the movies, by the PR. A measure it seems, employed by Sridevi herself over the past decade, to ensure safeguarding her own life. Why? Why the fierce protection? We will never know.

This guarding is what has created a frenzy in the press now that she is no more. They have stopped themselves for ages, but now they want to know the story about Sridevi. Well, in God’s plain way, that story shall remain a secret forever. Thus, ensuring the aura of superstardom is preserved upon the name of Sridevi. She shall remain India’s biggest superstar for time immemorial, and she had designed her career to the last dot. If that isn’t a story worth writing about, perhaps one day by a young passionate writer who is willing to step into the unknown to dig it out, I don’t know what is. As for me, I have lost my chance. This is a story I never could try my luck on. At the end of the day, now that I look back, maybe that will be my biggest regret. Not just losing an opportunity, but losing the will to speak up in the world enamoured by the splendour of Sridevi….