In a film industry of heroes who don't age beyond 30 and heroines beyond 25, comebacks are hard to pull off, especially if you are female and have crossed into the twilight zone of 40 plus. Last year, Sridevi changed that by starring as a decidedly middle-aged homemaker, low on glamour and grammar, in English Vinglish. 15 years away from the arc-lights have not dimmed Sridevi's talent or her star quality and now, at 50, she is a bona fide star once again, a feat last achieved by a 58-year-old Amitabh Bachchan whose career was resurrected by Mohabbatein in 2000.
It all started with 1967's Kandan Karunai in which a four-year old Sridevi starred in Kandhan Karunai opposite Tamil great Sivaji Ganesan. Little Sridevi, who was born into a lawyer's family in Sivakasi, then appeared in a number of Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam movies. Her performance in 1971's Poombatta won her the Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Artist. In 1976, 13-year-old Sridevi scored her first role as leading lady in Moondru Mudichu, opposite two men who would become Tamil cinema's biggest stars - Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. By the time Sridevi made her Bollywood debut as a leading lady in 1979's Solva Sawan, she was a name to reckon with down South. Sridevi continued to appear in Tamil and Telugu cinema well into the Eighties, after becoming a Bollywood superstar.
Solva Sawan, which co-starred Amol Palekar and flopped at the box office, was not Sridevi's first Hindi outing. In the hit 1975 film Julie, Sridevi played the heroine's younger sister. Her Bollywood breakthrough came four years after Solva Sawan in 1983 with Sadma, a remake of Moondram Pirai starring herself and Kamal Haasan, and the blockbuster Himmatwala opposite Jeetendra. Despite the critical acclaim Sadma received, it was Himmatwala, with its peppy dance number Naino Mein Sapna, that made Sridevi a star. In 1986, Sridevi appeared in Nagina as a shape-shifting snake-woman, a role that had been turned down by many actresses including Sridevi's reported rival Jaya Prada. Nagina was a surprise hit and made Sridevi the undisputed queen of box office charts, a position she occupied for the rest of the Eighties and late into the Nineties.
In the wake of Nagina, came a guest appearance in Janbaaz that all but eclipsed lead actress Dimple Kapadia's performance. The next year, in 1987, Sridevi delivered another scene-stealing performance as a journalist in Mr India. Her comic take-off on Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp and the songs Hawa Hawai and Kaate Nahi Katate ensured that Sridevi held her own against Anil Kapoor's protagonist and Amrish Puri's megavillain Mogambo.
In 1989, Sridevi starred in two very different but hugely successful films. She played a double role in Chaalbaaz, a remake of Hema Malini's famous Seeta Aur Geeta, and set the benchmark for "the Yash Chopra heroine" in Chandni. A second Yash Chopra movie followed in 1991 with Lamhe, an inter-generational love story co-starring Anil Kapoor that has been cited by the late director as a personal favourite film. Lamhe was a box office flop but cleaned up at the Filmfare Awards, including a Best Actress win for Sridevi.
In the next six years, Sridevi starred in films like the ill-fated Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja and crime thriller Gumraah, ending with her last hurrah, 1997's Judaai opposite Urmila Matondkar and frequent collaborator and now brother-in-law Anil Kapoor. The previous year, Sridevi had married producer Boney Kapoor, Anil's brother. After Judaai, she quit movies and settled down to being a wife and mother. She and Boney Kapoor had two daughters named Jhanvi and Khushi. She would not return to a starring role for the next 15 years, in rookie director Gauri Shinde's English Vinglish. English Vinglish was made with a cast of mostly unknown actors with the sole exception of Sridevi as an under-confident mother-of-two who takes English lessons and discovers a sense of self and identity as she does so.
At her peak, Sridevi was considered unique because, in a celluloid era dominated by heroes, masala movies and gender stereotypes, she had roles written for her and starred in films like Nagina, ChaalBaaz, Chandni and Lamhe, all of which centred around her character. Despite stiff competition from actresses like her contemporary Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi is considered the first real female superstar in Bollywood. She won five Filmfare Awards across Hindi, Tamil and Telugu cinema. In 2012, she was awarded the Padma Shri.