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Requiem for Her Dream

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Published not long after her death, this biography of Sridevi is served well by its attention to detail. Sridevi-The Eternal Screen GoddessThere is good reason to approach an authorised biography with a degree of wariness, especially when the subject is a beloved movie star and the book is published not long after her untimely, much-lamented…

Published not long after her death, this biography of Sridevi is served well by its attention to detail.

Sridevi-The Eternal Screen Goddess

There is good reason to approach an authorised biography with a degree of wariness, especially when the subject is a beloved movie star and the book is published not long after her untimely, much-lamented death. Such were my initial feelings about Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess, which was written with the cooperation of the actress’s husband Boney Kapoor, described by the author as “the invisible force behind this book”.

But what makes this book feel personal (and discourages the notion that it was a hurried ego project) is that Nayak makes his own Sridevi obsession immediate and persuasive. While much of the journalistic information here comes from magazines, or first-hand interviews, there is also enough evidence that the author has closely watched and engaged with her large filmography. For those of us who know Sridevi mainly through her work in Hindi cinema, some of the most interesting sections are the ones about her work in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema, starting with her child roles playing mythological characters like Lord Murugan.

Nayak discusses Sridevi as child-woman, the performer who never had a proper transition from childhood to adulthood. (“It was almost as if she was playing out a double role in real life as well, a kid who had grown too much, an adult who had grown too little.”) Her intuitive approach to acting, her extraordinary comedic talent, and her deployment of the many rasas in classical Indian expression. The successful pairings with Kamal Haasan, the epochal performances in films like Mondram Pirai (remade in Hindi as Sadma), the rivalry with Jaya Prada, the rise to a stature where she could play an eye-catching double role in even an Amitabh Bachchan film (Khuda Gawah). The ways in which she maintained a measure of control over the male gaze (even while working in a male-dominated industry where heroines were often treated as eye candy) and how her persona in films like Nagina resonated with closet homosexuals, or with other sorts of marginalised people.

He often begins his analysis of a Sridevi performance in a scene with the words “Watch how” This can get repetitive and sometimes ornate (“Her face created its own grammar, her charisma overrode every technical rule, creating a physicality that was simply impossible to replicate”), and you might wonder how, discussing dozens of films across decades and languages, he doesn’t find anything seriously negative to say about a performance. (Dissing some of her choices is another matter; that’s easily done with any prolific Indian movie star.) But there is also something guileless and pleasing about this nerdy attention to detail, this willingness to focus on the little moments, and that’s what raises this book above the assembly-line biography. Even if this is a hagiography, it feels rooted in an honest love for its subject.

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