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The Sivakasi Pataka : Sri Devi

February 25, 2018


A beauty from Sri Devi’s first picture. She was 13 then: ‘Moondru Mudichu’ heavy subject under Dada Sahab Phalke award winning director K Balachander. And how maturely she handled it opposite not one but two budding and challenging actors Rajni Kanth and Kamal Hasan both at the same time as the script demanded…


For most of us from Tamil Nad, Sri Devi’s memory is restricted to her Tamil/south Indian pictures. We did catch up with her Bollywood films but we found that her soul was somehow missing in them. ‘Moondram Pirai’ (the third night slice of moon) originally Tamil was dubbed into Hindi as ‘Sadma’ and this picture changed Sri Devi’s destiny and weaned her away from Madras, her home forever.

Remember ‘Star Dust’ calling Sri Devi ‘Idli’ in one of their issues in 1980s when I was a school girl and a huge fan of Sri Devi. Because Sri Devi was a little plumpy but healthy-looking then. Some of us girls swore not to touch Stardust again in life. I still cannot forget the racial slurs Stardust routinely unleashed on heroines from south. When Sri Devi won, it was victory for the south for us. I completely left reading Stardust with that one issue of theirs. Sri Devi proved the bloody editor wrong. Stardust/Hindi tabloids could be wholly responsible for ruining and devastating Sri Devi’s engagement (she was to marry the Tennis Grandslam and ace player Vijay Amritraj of Amritraj Brothers,  from Madras and Hollywood producers.


Born in Siva Kasi, the famous fire-cracker industrial small town of India/Tamil Nadu, none of us in Tamil Nadu thought our local heart throb Sri Devi, who was already a legend and sort of lady superstar in Tamil film industry, would turn into an all-India sensation.

It is only this week I was watching one of her foremost films ’16 vayadhinile’ (at 16 years) for umpteenth time. In this epic picture, Sri Devi is a village belle. In most southern films, she appears without make-up or glamorous costumes. The hero is Kamal Hasan and the anti-hero Rajni Kanth. I can never tire of this classic rural scape that i have watched dozens of times in the tv. Everytime I watch this film, I tell myself why Sri Devi, Rajni Kanth, Kamal Hasan, director Bharathi Raja, music director Ilayaraja and even the comedian Goundamani became huge success stories. It is like a cult movie. A must watch to see how basic and real Tamil film industry is and how it molds actors like it may never be possible in Bollywood.

I have loved Sri Devi’s black and white Tamil magics and also those few colour films that came at the start of the 1980s. Powerful and meaningful roles for the actress who easily became a superstar in the south clad  in a sari, never with the kind of clothes or make-up that she wore in Bollywood. I have seen almost all of Sri Devi’s Tamil films, but have not seen her Hindi films much except for perhaps one or two. REason was, I could not come to terms with her Bollywood image. In Tamil films, Sri Devi has a huge nose. For Hindi film industry, she went for a nose job after which she became an all-India superstar.

One more thing I loved about Sri Devi was her voice, which was childish and sweet. Amazingly Sri Devi did not know a single word of Hindi when she started acting in Bollywood. From initial stages of getting dubbed for her roles, imagine the lengths she had to walk to get where she did.

I was about to write a piece of ’16 vayadhinile’ (1976?) …. I will…

The image of Sri Devi with me will always be that of the south Indian heroine that she was. I saw ‘English Vinglish’ a couple of years back and loved it. I could understand why Bollywood celebrated her. She could have been daughter of Chennai but then she became the bahu of Mumbai.

Yet Sri Devi’s residence is still there in Chennai. Once after she entered Bollywood, I went for shopping at Nilgiris supermarket. After I married. By then Sri Devi had been almost forgotten locally after her debut in Bollywood, and Tamil film industry had seen many more rising female stars. Sri Devi was not yet married then I guess. I saw her in her car driven by her driver. She had lost her mother i think. Not sure. She was in a yellow sari, calm and quiet, without any of the fanfare about her as in Bollywood. No make-up. Looked sombre in fact and i wondered for a moment, what was happening in her life.  But i was a young mother myself. No more thoughts for busy me then. Nobody in Madras gave her a second look. This was the first superstar of Bollywood imagine. I did stare at her in awe. The image, like JJ’s, stays with me forever though. Like frozen in time. Sri Devi I recall, unlike JJ who sought eye contact with me/any pedestrian when held up in traffic, was careful not to make eye-contact with passersby. Her car had slowed down near Nilgiris, behind which her house was. My one and only encounter with the star. I later learned her property was in a legal dispute. Sri Devi owned a lot of real estate in the city.

Sri Devi made her debut in Tamil film industry at the tender age of 4 years as a child artiste. Her mother was an extra artiste. She wanted to make her daughter a heroine. Just like JJ’s mother who was also an extra who wanted to make JJ a heroine. Sri Devi, quite like Jayalalitha Jayaram, became a star only to fulfill her mother’s wishes. While in Madras, she was completely under the control of her parents. She had affair with none. She was gossiped with none. Her mother chaperoned her everywhere. Down south, she never socialized, never partied. Her private life was off public gaze. Sri was a very much protected and cherished daughter. In Bollywood, everything changed. She was rumoured to have married Mithun Chakraborty. She was about to marry Vijay Amritraj, the ace tennis Grandslam player from Madras, now a US citizen and a renowned Hollywood producer. But the wedding plans fell through at the last moment when Hindi tabloids released news of the star’s marriage to Mithun. She was already over it but the damage was done. Sri Devi broke down reportedly on that. The same Bollywood that made her into a superstar also destroyed and damaged her life forever. Media had the biggest role to play in changing her life. Shameless and heartless. After that, her parents passed away, and she married Boney Kapoor. There was tv report about her during her Bollywood days when she returned to Madras/Sivakasi to canvass for her father Aiyappan who was contesting for a Congress seat in Lok Sabha elections. Since then Sri Devi rarely returned to Chennai or was in local news.

Sri Devi’s family in Madras used to be very closely knit. Her younger sister Sri Latha was married off by Sri Devi who never allowed even a single photograph of her young sis to be published anywhere in the media in those days. We in Tamil Nadu never knew anything about her sister except for her name. That is how the actress fiercely protected her sibling from public glare. Of late I kept wondering how the Sri Devi of Tamil film industry who was so protective about her kid sister keeping her out of tinsel town/media news was parading her own teenage daughters for filmy chances, in parties etc. Was this the Bollywood effect? What a character change from the simple but firm Sri Devi to the stunningly glam Sri Devi, the diva of Bollwyood that she had become.

Sri Devi, running and running after money and fame from right her fourth year as a little child, who never attended school for this reason, who lived first for her parents, who lived then for her daughters…. I hope she finally gets all the rest she duly deserves.

Feel saddest about her.  Like JJ, she did not have it easy. Throughout her life, she was chasing money. I never liked her Bollywood transformation but that is what made her all-India famous. But she was already popular in entire south. But Sri Devi left her dear daughters exactly the way her mother left her at the most crucial point of her life. With her nose surgery, Sri Devi began her life long tryst with cosmetic surgery: pucking her lips, liposuction, tummy tucks etc., etc. Coupled with the enormous financial stress she had over maintaining her status and dressing up her daughters, she must have paid with her life which makes one wonder whether it is worth it.

Watching ’16 vayadhinile’ with my husband, we were chatting how everyone else in the picture Sri Devi, Rajni Kanth, Kamal Hasan, comedian Gaunda Mani, director Bharathi Raja, music composer Ilaya Raja all went on to become superstars in their own fields even though they played unflattering roles/behind the scenes. But the glamourous and good looking hero-like doctor played by whoever (?) became a one-film sensation and dropped out of the film industry totally, to be forgotten forever. When the film may have been released, who would have imagined such a reversal of roles in actual life.

In retrospective, I now wonder who is the real winner in life. Rajni Kanth and Kamal Hasan who have made themselves jokers after touching the peak of fame and fortune whose own daughers are unworthy of any mention doing them harm, Ilaya Raja and Bharathi Raja whose sons are spoilt and beyond redemption, Sri Devi now no more… or perhaps this hero guy who played the doctor who went into anonymity after ’16 vayadhinile’ never becoming the hero he was supposed to be… This man I am sure is now far and removed from film industry and limelight, probably a happy family man than all of these supposedly successful stars from the film. What is success and what is failure in life. The doctor guy could be the real success story in actual life who knows.  Do people even bother to know if he exists anymore?! Good for him!

And one more irony of life: how Sri Devi who went under knife for a chain of cosmetic surgeries also was destined to go through post mortem for one final time. The business class queen like heroine to be transported back in cargo section.

Life is that much impermanent. Nothing is stable. Sri Devi is proof.


Destiny of Tamil Heroines

Vaijayanthi Mala married Bali, she was his second wife. Rekha, daughter of veteran Tamil actor Gemini Ganesan, entered Bollywood only because she was an illegitimate child born out of wedlock. She wanted to move far and away from Madras. Hema Malini became the second wife of Dharmendra. Jaya Prada second wife of someone else. Sri Devi’s story we know. Aseen originally Mallu only has married well.

Contrastingly Hindi heroines who fared better in south like Khushboo, Jyothika (both muslim by birth) are happily married in Chennai (to Hindu families).

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