Superheroes are known to lead double lives in a bid to conceal their spectacular powers. The Man Of Steel lies low as the timid, bespectacled Clark Kent till a crisis requires him to assume his Superman avatar. Peter Parker is a nerdy and inconspicuous student-cum-photographer when not scaling up skyscrapers and unleashing his web shooters to capture criminals as Spiderman.
We, the Indian film industry, don’t need the fictitious exploits of Superman, Spiderman and their ilk on the cinema screen and in graphic novels to believe in superheroes. We observed one in action for five decades – a Wonder Woman named Sridevi.
Following the classical construct of superhero duality, she led a low-key, extremely private, personal life. But that guarded persona disappeared the minute the film camera started rolling and her superpowers switched on.
While Thor may have the gift of flight when armed with his hammer and The Hulk is blessed with brute force, our Wonder Woman’s gifts were varied and manifold.
Every emotion, nuance and skill that scriptwriters could conjure up with their pens, and directors visualise in their mind’s eye, Sridevi would effortlessly bring them alive on the screen. While Indian film stars – gender no bar – typically get identified with a trademark genre/onscreen persona, you’d be hard-pressed to pigeonhole her solely as a dramatic virtuoso or a comic star or a dancing sensation or a romantic heroine, simply because she carried them all off with equal ease, expertise and flair.
Her rich filmography spanning five decades and as many languages is testimony to the boundless range of her talent – from Sadma to Himmatwala to Nagina to Mr India to Chandni to Lamhe to Khuda Gawah to Gumrah to Judaai and plenty more, many of them landmark films in the history of Indian cinema. And you don’t even need to browse through the over 250 films she performed in to appreciate her versatility – just one Chaalbaaz is proof enough. It is a film in which she portrayed the meek Anju and the street smart Manju with such felicity that, despite there being no major difference in the physical appearances of the two characters, it’s easy to forget that it is one actor playing both parts.
Superheroes are known to defy unhealthy conventions and right unacceptable wrongs. Unsurprisingly, then, our Wonder Woman did the same. Ours is an industry where the change in the marital status of a female lead and/or her crossing some undefined and ridiculously low threshold in terms of age, tends to rapidly bring the curtain down on the careers of even our most accomplished heroines.
Despite Sridevi taking a long, self-imposed break from the arc lights to tend to her young family, she made a sparkling comeback, on her own terms, with the delightful English Vinglish in 2012, fifteen years after her previous release. The fact that it was no flash in the pan was categorically proved by yet another successful outing with MOM just months back (July, 2017).
While we will unfortunately never know what other captivating performances lay in store for us in the second innings of this marvellous career, Sridevi demolished the myth that female leads in Hindi cinema must necessarily be single women in their twenties and early-thirties.
And while we are on the subject of female leads, perhaps even more than the longevity and prolificacy of her career, more than her pan-India stardom spanning Hindi and regional cinema, more than her captivating screen presence and the sheer versatility of her craft, Sridevi’s most important and abiding legacy will be the respect and stature she wrested for female actors.
This is all the more remarkable as the peak of her career coincided with the lowest point as far as heroines in general are concerned. Relegated to being cosmetic props for the all-important hero with even comic sidekicks having a more meaningful presence in the narrative, female leads were given a raw deal by the typical masala entertainer of the 1980s and 90s.
Sridevi’s talent and stardom was too immense to fit into the narrow confines of the then prevalent template of the Hindi film heroine. In the biggest of films with the biggest of superstar co-stars, Sridevi’s character arc and narrative importance were, at the very least, at par with that of her male counterparts.
Yes, we still remain an industry that is far from attaining gender parity – both in terms of the opportunities we offer our female talents as also the compensation they receive. But to Sridevi must go the credit for starting the process of at least reducing the gender gap. It was her repeatedly demonstrated bankability at the box office – more often than not as the prime draw – that laid the grounds for the Kahaanis and Queens and Padmaavats to follow.
Finally, it is not the ability to fly at the speed of light or the strength to stop a train that constitutes a superhero’s greatest gift. The greatest power that superheroes possess is the power to inspire by example – to show us paths we didn’t know existed, to unleash the potential we didn’t know we possessed. In doing so, their superpowers live on through the deeds of those they inspire… even when the superheroes themselves aren’t around.
And so it will be with our Wonder Woman.