June 3, 2021
In “Hawa Hawai,” inarguably the pièce de résistance of Mr. India (1987), Bollywood actor Sridevi descends from the skies draped in glittery gems and sequins. Once her feet touch the ground, she cheekily blows a kiss to her rapt audience; a golden crown sits squarely on her head. What follows is a seven-minute-long masterclass of camp, comedy, and glamour. With a mic in hand, Sridevi contorts her face to convey a myriad of emotions — disapproval, glee, playful abandon, mischief, pluck, and sheepishness — widening her eyes, rolling them, and puckering her lips. She doesn’t move on stage as much as glides over it. As the world becomes her stage, it’s clear that the stage is her world.
There were many reasons to be obsessed with Sridevi. You could be a fan of her impeccable dancing and probably tried replicating the steps to “Main Teri Dushman” from Nagina (1986) in your room. Or, you were taken by her pitch-perfect comic timing in Mr. India and how effortlessly she made you laugh at, and with, her. Maybe you couldn’t get enough of her boisterous outfits in Lamhe (1991), Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1993), or Judaai (1997): chiffon saris and pink lehengas, glittery gowns, velvet overalls, and printed shirts. Perhaps her vulnerability in Sadma (1983) made you want to protect her, and her unquestionable charm in Chandni (1989) made you want to be her.
But mostly, you were a Sridevi fan because you admired her fearlessness in attacking those in power and her commitment to self-expression, no matter how outrageous, klutzy, or garish. (In contrast to her loaded on-screen persona, Sridevi was painfully shy and introverted in real life.) At a time when Bollywood wanted heroines to be desirable, largely shorn of agency, Sridevi’s insistence on playing characters who were varying degrees of different — misfits, underdogs, brazen vigilantes — and not flattening out their rough edges, became the epitome of on-screen rebellion. Playing double roles and channeling camp and glamour in an era when Bollywood barely recognized queerness, also made her the perfect representation of a queer icon — someone who wholeheartedly embraced her roles, even if they stood at odds with society’s definition of normal.