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.”
In a country with 22 official languages, several film industries, and diverse regional cultures, Sridevi was popular not just in Hindi-speaking Bollywood, but also throughout India—a rare feat. Over the course of her career, Sridevi made 81 films in Telugu, 72 films in Hindi, at least 71 films in Tamil, 23 films in Malayalam, and six films in Kannada. She somehow managed to deliver hit Hindi films in quick succession, despite not being fluent in Hindi (until Chandni in 1989, the half-Tamil and half-Telugu actress would have her Bollywood dialogues dubbed).
Conventionally, Bollywood leading ladies sought to woo heroes and audiences with their beauty and virtue. That changed in the 1970s and ’80s, partly in an effort to reflect a changing society and partly to cater to growing male audiences. Sridevi belonged to the early set of Bollywood actresses who played heroines as overtly sexy, and while this made her a crowd favorite, it also proved to be a limitation.This is uncomfortably evident in the way this 1987 India Today profile depicts her:
If Meena Kumari was the eternal tragedienne and Amitabh [Bachchan] made it big with his angry young man image, Sridevi projects a quality that producers feel every Indian male craves for in a woman. As one producer says: “They want their wives to be an angel in front of the family and a mistress in bed. She has that quality.”
The writer is talking about one of the most successful stars in Bollywood and the only actress of her time to demand pay and billing equal to that of her male peers. Straitjacketed by the scripts, costumes, and attitudes of ’80s and ’90s Bollywood, no actress should have been able to give the heroes a run for their money, but Sridevi did.