When news of Bollywood actress Sridevi’s death in Dubai spread like wildfire late Saturday evening, it understandably met with shock and disbelief. Sridevi was a phenomenon – described as the first female “superstar” — she is being remembered not just by fans in India, but around the world. Sridevi, 54, died on Saturday in a Dubai hotel bathroom. The autopsy report called it an “accidental drowning” in the bathtub.
She was only 55 and looked hale and hearty. Sridevi was in the UAE for a family wedding and was seen cheerfully greeting people in videos circulating on social media. What followed though was pure grief from all over the world and a collective feeling of “gone too soon”. India’s ambassador to the UAE, Navdeep Singh Suri, was the first to confirm and condole the death:
“Absolutely shocked to get the report about untimely demise of #Sridevi. Conveyed my condolences to the family. Our consulate in Dubai is working with local authorities to provide all possible assistance”, he wrote in the tweet.
Sridevi, who had started as a child actor and rose to become a Bollywood sweetheart, left the scene for 15 years only to stage a resounding comeback at the age of 50, unusual in any film industry. News channels from BBC to CNN featured the star, and Twitter lit up with tributes and tears on her untimely death in Dubai at the age of 54.
Sridevi had already been a phenomenon in Tamil and Telugu films before she came to Bollywood, says Professor Gyan Prakash, who teaches history at Princeton and has included Bollywood in some of his courses. “In Bollywood, she could navigate both comedy and intensely emotional roles with ease – intensity in “Chandni” and comedy in “Mr. India.” There are not many in Bollywood who could cover this kind of range,” said Prakash, whose book on Mumbai was made into the film “Bombay Velvet.”
Indo-British filmmaker Gurinder Chadha, who met Sridevi very recently at a get-together hosted by fashion designer Manish Malhotra, told BBC the Sridevi was, “completely and utterly, a force of nature on her own.” adding, “She is, and I don’t use the world lightly, an Icon.”
Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, who directed Sridevi in films like Great Robbery, Govindhaa Govindhaa and Hairaan, says that the late actress has been a “very unhappy woman” and her life was a “classic case of how each person’s actual life is completely different from how the world perceives it”.
In a personal note on her, Varma says that she was the most desirable woman and the biggest super star of the country but that’s just a part of the story. He wrote: “For many, Sridevi’s life was perfect. Beautiful face, great talent, seemingly stable family with two beautiful daughters. From outside everything looked so enviable and desirable… But was Sridevi a very happy person and did she lead a very happy life?”
People hailing from South India and living in the United States, have been listening to the continuous replay of the memorable song, Kanne Kalaimane” from her 1980s film with screen idol Kamal Haasan – “Moondram Tirai” (loosely translated to mean 3rd day of the new moon). “She was so innocent in that movie, nobody can forget that,” Purushottaman recalls, reminiscing further about the song that was composed by poet Kannadasan, who gave then child-actor Sridevi her first role as God Muruga in “Thunalvan.”
Sridevi’s remarkable comeback in “English Vinglish” at the age of 50, “was very significant for the Indian diaspora,” says Rochona Majumdar, associate professor in the Departments of Cinema and Media Studies, South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. “It spoke to a generation of middle and upper middle-class women who had an English handicap,” said Majumdar, who is a “huge” fan of Sridevi and feels a sense of personal loss. Majumdar also pointed to “English Vinglish” portraying the Indian-American community in the U.S.
“It is a great shock to our community. We grew up with her and she was a heartthrob for many of us,” said Ranganathan “Ranga” Purushottaman, president of the New York Tamil Sangam, adding, “We loved her from the beginning.”
Familiarity with Sridevi spreads across generations, according to Purushottaman. ” Even our children know her, with her latest movie “English-Vinglish” which had a great effect on us NRIs,” he said, referring to non-resident Indians.
“The Indian diaspora got to see how they are absorbing and melting into the American environment. And it was a very cosmopolitan environment that director Gauri Shinde showed, in which she (Sridevi) was very good,” Majumdar added.
Sridevi was the Grand Marshal of the Federation of Indian Association’s India Day Parade of 1996 in New York City. “On behalf of the Chairman, Board Of Trustees & the Executive Committee, our condolences to the Kapoor family. This is a dark day for the Indian film industry. We will pray to almighty god to give her departed soul peace and all strength to her family to go through this tough times,” the FIA said in a statement on Sridevi’s demise.