Last night, much to my shock and sadness, 54-year-old Indian movie star Sridevi, whose films I grew up on, passed away from a heart attack. For many in the West, her name may evoke images of Bollywood cliches and dancing around trees, but for Indian women she was so much more than that: a strong, independent woman; a feminist inspiration; a true trailblazer who fought to change perceptions of women in cinema, and still won over the hearts of a patriarchal nation.
Growing up in Nigeria in the Eighties, to Tamil parents from Sri Lanka, I had very few options when it came to Indian cinema – a representation of myself on screen and TV – so actresses like Sridevi were crucial, yet few and far between.
The majority of roles for women across Indian cinema are an aesthetic token – they’re there to look pretty and glamorous, but their relevance is usually inconsequential to the narrative. Sridevi, though, worked with strong female roles that showcased her as an actress, but also as a role model to women who were seeking a progressive life, fighting to break the mould that their mothers and grandmothers had often been forced into.
South East Asians across the world – including India and the diaspora – are mourning Sridevi not just as an actor, but as someone who used social media to amplify her voice and show all women that they, too, can be heard. She pushed for screen time on par with her male co-leads, as well as equal pay – long before these were widely discussed topics. She was one of the only women in Bollywood who could lead a film without a male co-star – something incredibly rare in Indian cinema.
She was confident in her abilities but worked hard to get to where she was, learning multiple languages and studying dance in order to hone her talents and be recognised for more than her looks and femininity – something many women are still striving towards today.
Sridevi began her foray into cinema as a child actress aged four. At just 13, she took on fully fledged roles of complex women, directed by some of the top names in South Indian cinema. Her huge success saw her traversing roles in Tamil classics like K Balachander’s Moondru Mudichu (3 Knots), a feminist cult classic which was way ahead of its time, and Balu Mahendra’s masterpiece Moondram Pirai (Crescent That Appears on the 3rd Day After a New Moon) and its Hindi remake, Sadma (Trauma), which propelled Sridevi into the stratosphere of Bollywood, leading to hugely popular, timeless Hindi films, like Mr India, Judaai, ChaalBaaz and Chandni.
After spending most of her life on film sets and reaching the pinnacle of her career, she found her true love in Boney Kapoor in 1996, a film producer who was already married. Never one deterred by an unconventional set-up, she jumped into the relationship, and they remained married when she died. Sridevi did not allow herself to become boxed in to a particular role, and when she made the decision to have children, she decided to take a break from the career to which she had dedicated her life.
I had the pleasure of speaking to her when she was en route to the Toronto International Film Festival, which was screening her comeback film, Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, in 2012. She was very aware of her stardom, but humble to how the industry was changing. Her role was about the emancipation of a housewife, who takes a stand against her bullish husband, in a film helmed by a female director. She told me that she had negotiated family time while shooting, so that she could balance her work with being a parent.
It’s been heartening to see the sheer breath of tributes pouring in, including rapper M.I.A who tweeted about everything Sridevi did for Tamil women on screen, ruling South Indian cinema in the 70s and 80s before her foray into Bollywood, and the Indian movie industry as a whole.
It’s true that Sridevi was the first Bollywood star, but she was so much more than that to her fans. In an era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s clear the entertainment industry still has a long way to go, but for Asian women like me, Sridevi’s death marks the end of a life that fought tirelessly to inspire us all to believe that our actions – however small – can lead to true progress.
Ashanti Omkar presents an eponymous radio show on BBC Asian Network
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