Today, actresses like Aishwarya Rai, Vidya Balan and Deepika Padukone, with south Indian origins may be popular and their brand values touching dizzying heights in Mumbai and across the world as multiple media platforms keep them constantly under the spotlight.
The last of the southern superstarnis
Their roots from the Indian down under is the only common point with Sridevi, the glamorous diva who died last week, as they all parachuted into the celluloid world from various backgrounds like modelling, beauty contests and sports.
Yet, it all the more lends focus on the fact that after Sridevi, there has been none who debuted elsewhere, made a mark and moved on to conquer new frontiers, wherever she set her foot on. Hindi film industry has many predecessors to the sultry siren, who had an arresting impact whenever she came onscreen.
An assembly line, it certainly was. From the first decade after Indian independence to the last of the 20th century, a popular and visible combination of a lead pair in Hindi cinema was the upcountry (read Punjabi/Sikh) hero and a comely heroine from various corners of the country, with Bengal on one side and the southern peninsula on the other.
For every Raj Kapoor-Padmini or Rajendra Kumar-Vyjayanthimala of the 1950s and 60s, in the later years, there were Dharmendra-Hema Malini, Jeetendra-Jayaprada, Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha and Rajesh Khanna-Sridevi films.
It conveniently facilitated the clichéd observation of Bombay movie world pundits who were never tired of repeating that ‘brawn comes from North, while beauty comes from the south’. If one includes the likes of Waheeda Rehman, Rameshwari Talluri and Zarina Wahab, all south-born Hindi film heroines in this list then it affirms the opinion comfortably.
Rather notably, as Sridevi, the last of the superstarnis from across the Vindhyas was consigned to flames on February 28 in Mumbai, it marked the end of an era of such a time and trend. By any standards, it was a very significant development for a whole variety of reasons. Particularly, as a syncretic effort at the inclusion of talents from all corners of the country in a Hindi film which continues to have the maximum global reach for an Indian cinema venture till date.
Fitting tributes to the first of the woman superstars of Indian cinema, for her very long career under the arc lights to her successful tenure across all film industries have all been chronicled in detail. If Sridevi was unchallenged as she rose meteorically in the 1980s (after a disastrous debut in 1979 and fading out nearly two decades later), she also accidentally ensured that there would be none after her to take the arduous climb in the manner that she did.
Arguably, it was during her stay at the top that generational shifts took place all over the major film industries, of which she benefitted effortlessly. One example would be her pairing with the father and son heroes like Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Nagarjuna, both of whom were a tad underplayed in those films featuring her as she romped on the screen oozing charm and oomph.
If this was about the men, a plethora of leading ladies who succeeded her, beginning with Madhuri Dixit to her Hindi-speaking counterparts like Raveena Tandon, Karisma Kapoor, Juhi Chawla, Shilpa Shirodkar, Sonali Bendre, Urmila Matondkar and a few more made Hindi cinema suddenly look an exclusive playground. The Madhavis and Jayapradas, barring a brief period of halo for Vijayashanti had to either beat a hasty retreat to familiar territories or take off for a life outside the arc lights.
Sridevi’s life was surely not a smooth-sailing one, from the time she began as a child artiste and effectively crossing the awkward phase of adolescence to zoom into the big league of desirable women on the silver screen. Like her illustrious predecessors, Savitri, for one, she too had her bad phases by moving in and out of romantic liaisons, some of which continued to haunt her till the end of her life.
Other than this, as her ardent fan and a director who is constantly under the spotlight, Ram Gopal Varma also wrote, she was the proverbial golden goose, who lost it all by the time her active career skidded to a halt.
The replacement of Sridevi also saw a different kind of heroines with southern origins making it in the 1990s. The Miss World of 1994, Aishwarya Rai, a Mangalorean by origin comes to mind immediately, even as Shilpa Shetty preceded her a year earlier with the runaway hit ‘Baazigar’, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol.
Superficially, there are similarities between Rai and Sridevi, as the former too began her career in a Tamil film, ‘Iruvar’, a Pongal release of 1997. Yet, unlike her senior, Aishwarya was not a regular in southern cinema and chose to spend time in Mumbai, even as her first decade there was not a bump-free existence.
If it went on to reinforce a trend, it only artificially revived the theory that there are still beautiful women from the southern shores who could break in into the heavily upcountry kind of a movie world Mumbai moviedom had become by then.
Of course, a lot had changed everywhere and like the brutally practical professionals that their counterparts were, Aishwarya Rai managed to do a whole lot of things that her typically Dravidian seniors could not. This meant that her brand value could be better exploited to have a foothold in international brand endorsements from soft drinks to wrist watches and her profile catching the attention of the global media.
Vidya Balan, who moved to the big screen from a television serial, went through the rigmarole of advertising films and a botched career in the southern film industry (where she was considered jinxed) to carve out a niche as an intelligent, intense actress who could draw in both the male and female audiences.
She has by and large managed to hold on to that position as there are production houses willing to wager on her pulling power at the box office, to mixed results. Her ‘Tumhari Sulu’ is a recent example.
Deepika Padukone is the latest in this micro list who has hardly any Dravidian hangover, yet has not been immune to being wooed by the biggest names in the southern film industry like Rajinikanth who included her in one of his hi-tech ventures ‘Kochadaiyan’, a dud of a venture, released four years ago. A random foray into native Kannada has also been undertaken by her but she is too international a star today to be content with being labelled a south Indian heroine in the Hindi scheme of things.
Here is where the distinctive lines between Sridevi and the others who followed her become apparent. It only goes to lend further strength to her kind of achievements a decade or two earlier, when she stayed the course and made a fight out of it, managing mega egos of male stars and satiating the urges of her ever-expanding legion of fans.
Now, with the motion picture industry itself doing a 360-degree turn and launching its wares across many media outlets, the kind of cinema and the patrons who watch it may only make this icon yet another portrait in the Hall of Fame that Indian cinema has built over the years.