New Delhi — In a country where movies are almost a religion and movie stars almost deities, choosing Sridevi's greatest films could be treacherous. No matter which films are chosen, millions of fans will disagree, many angrily.
One of Bollywood's most iconic actresses, she appeared in more than 150 movies, in at least six languages, over almost four decades.
But as India mourns her death, here are — at least in the opinion of one child of the 1980s — Sridevi's top five.
It was a theme done to death in Hindi movies — the shape-shifting snake-woman avenging her lover's death. But Sridevi redefined how it could be done when she starred as Rajni, the shape-shifter who falls in love with a man she also wants to kill, in "Nagina," or "Snake Woman." Nearly every Indian movie needs at least a few extended song-and-dance sequences, and Sridevi displays her skills to full advantage. There isn't a child of the 1980s who didn't dance at least once to the hit song "Mein teri dushman" or "I am your enemy," where she sways before a group of traditional snake charmers, her huge eyes flashing fury.
"Mr. India" (1987)
Now a cult classic, Sridevi played a Mumbai newspaper reporter named Seema intrigued by an invisible crime fighter known as Mr. India. After he saves her life, Seema finds herself falling in love with the mysterious hero, a gentle man who runs an orphanage and uses a magical wrist watch (don't ask) to make himself invisible. Mr. India was played by Anil Kapoor, later Sridevi's brother-in-law, who gained popularity in the West for his work as a game show host in "Slumdog Millionaire." In those days, Bollywood actresses' main job was to play the hero's love interest, but Sridevi's Seema was unforgettable. Her dance in a soaking wet blue sari, where she professes her love for Mr. India, was a first for Indian audiences for its unrestrained eroticism.
In "Chaalbaaz," or "Gameplayer," Sridevi showed Bollywood film distributors that she could pull off a film on her own. She also showed that she could match her legendary dancing skills with spot-on comic timing. The formula was as old as Bollywood itself: twins separated at birth. Sridevi played twin sisters Anju and Manju, rich orphaned girls. Anju is a meek young woman taken in by her aunt and uncle, who have an eye on her fortune. Manju, the separated twin, grows up in a slum and becomes a tough and sassy bar dancer. A series of plot twists puts Manju in her sister's mansion and Anju in the slum. More plot twists ensue with (of course) a happy ending with the twins reunited. The male stars were overshadowed by Sridevi, who delivered a box-office hit.
Sridevi's physical transformation in this huge hit marked a shift in Bollywood's aesthetic sensibility. Gone were the elaborate curls, the gold eye shadow and frothy dresses that were the Bollywood heroine's lot through most the 1980s. Instead, Sridevi plays Chandni Mathur in elegant chiffon saris in pastel colors. She dances beautifully (as always), making the comical faces that were by now her trademark. But she also packs a powerful performance as a woman forced to choose between two loves. This was the movie in which Sridevi established herself as a star.
By 1991, Sridevi and Bollywood producers were confident enough of her acting chops and sheer star power to cast her in yet another double role, this time as mother and daughter. "Lamhe," or "Moments," written by the legendary Urdu and Hindi novelist Rahi Masoom Raza, tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a man who had loved her mother from afar. The complex plot was ahead of the curve for Bollywood, and few other actresses could have pulled off the roles of Pallavi, the mother who dies soon after giving birth, and Pooja, the daughter who grows up worshipping a man who appears at her home once a year to mark the anniversary of her mother's death. The idea of a young woman falling for a much older man, and one who had worshipped her mother, was radical for audiences and the film didn't do great business. But the critics loved it and loved Sridevi.