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Diva Sridevi: From the Covenant of Madrasi Magic

VVP Sharma @vvemuri

Updated: February 26, 2018, 7:31 PM IST
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Diva Sridevi: From the Covenant of Madrasi Magic
A still from the Sridevi-starrer Himmatwala.
They make you laugh, they make you cry. They bedazzle you with their eyes, smack you with an inviting pout. They seduce you, they charm you into slavery, they drive you mad. They are the temptresses, the Divas of filmdom.

They have so much in common. They are bound by a common code of the ‘Migrant Madrasis’. Beauties beyond imagination. As good actors as they are stars. Made their careers in the south before conquering the north.

Sridevi was one of them. But she was neither the first. Nor is she the last.

There were days when the only thing south Indian known to Bollywood and the north was the ‘Madrasi’ character that Mehmood parodied in Hindi films — a loud chap wearing a veshti, a horizontal white tilak on his forehead, the head half-shorn and with a tuft, the atrocious Hindi mouthed in an unintelligible accent, back half bent as if in perennial supplication.

Amid the laughs that Mehmood commanded, there came about, unnoticed, a steady infusion of southern talent into Bollywood. It worked its magic into the skin of the Mumbai film industry and settled down there for all times. It was the female ‘Madrasi’ that slithered her way from down south.

Literally slithered her way. Like what Vyjayanthimala did in her first foray into Bollywood with Nagin in 1954. In no time, she could name her price and her co-star, and actually replaced perhaps India’s first superstar, Madhubala. Even Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor came under her spell.

Waheeda Rehman was waiting in the wings as Guru Dutt transported her from Hyderabad to Mumbai and OP Nayyar made her dance maddeningly to the tune of Kahin pe nigahen, kahin pe nishana in CID in 1956. Dev Anand wooed her in film after film. Guru Dutt lived for her.

Then another talent from the south suddenly burst over Mumbai. Padmini. A famous actress of the south. Known for her depth of acting with a figure to boot. Nobody imagined she would become Raj Kapoor’s muse in Mera Naam Joker. Only he could have convinced her to bare her voluptuous self as she danced to Shankar-Jaikishan’s seductive Ang lag ja balma.

The picturisation ranks up there with Satyam shivam sundaram and Roop tera mastana. Padmini left her memorable image in Kaajal, as she danced to Meena Kumari singing Chun chun ghungroo bole with Raj Kumar and Dharmendra losing their senses.

Then, of course, there’s the Dream Girl — Hema Malini. You simply cannot have enough of her, even if it means watching her in a water filter ad! You could have asked Raj Kapoor who agreed to star in Sapno Ka Saudagar, her debut movie. You can ask Dharmendra. Ask any top hero of the time. Ask Lalu Yadav, who told Bihar’s roads department to make roads “as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks”.

Chal Dhanno... aaj teri Basanti ki izzat ka sawaal hai” Audiences still bite their nails and sit on the edge of their seats as Dhanno tries to save Basanti in Sholay. The southern accent had come a long way by then!

The diminutive Laxmi introduced the rest of India to the struggles of an unwed mother in Julie, though the 1975 film is often talked about in the context of sex, and an English song — My heart is beating. It was a milestone in tackling taboo issues.

Who’s this, they asked, of the dusky and doe-eyed Rekha who received the best actress nomination at the Filmfare Awards for her 1978 portrayal of a gang-rape victim in Ghar. Indian viewers realised that here was a woman from Madras with good acting calibre. Little did they know then that in a few months, before the end of 1978, she would truly siren her arrival with Amitabh Bachchan in Muqaddar Ka Sikandar.

‘Madrasis’, as they were called, come in pairs! As Rekha made her mark, Sridevi made her entrance, not resting till her audience called her India’s first woman superstar. There was a time when producers and heroes had only a south Indian actress to choose from — Hema Malini, Rekha, Sridevi, Jayaprada.

In course, it was time for the next generation to take over. Meenakshi Sheshadri filled the gap with Hero. Zarina Wahab chipped in with Gharonda and Chit Chor.

GenNext arrived with Madhavi, Madhoo, Bhanupriya, Rambha, Ramyakrishnan.

But Bollywood had to wait for a while for the southern magic of 1950s-1980s. They came, one by one, slowly but surely, and enveloped Bollywood — Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, Suman Ranganathan, Shobhana. Then came the blockbuster bunch of Tabu and Aishwarya Rai.

The next generation from the south is there too in Deepika Padukone, Aditi Rao Hydari and Shruti Haasan. And as we remember the chirpy Madrasi Diva, Sridevi, we come a full circle with her daughter Janhvi, who’ll debut later this year in Dhadak.
First Published: February 26, 2018, 1:17 PM IST

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