In February 2018, thousands gathered on the streets of Mumbai to watch a flower-draped truck carrying a glass-topped coffin slowly travel through the city. Even police officers dispatched for crowd control could not stem their own tears. Before the coffin took off on its final journey, a troop of police offered full state honors: a 21 gun salute, and a flag to drape over the coffin.
This was a state funeral, the kind you would see for royalty, for a President or a Prime Minister. Yet, it was given to a woman who never held elected office, came from an average middle-class family, and wanted more than anything to be remembered as a “mother”. This is the magic of Sridevi Kapoor, the biggest female film star India has ever seen. She united all of India in love when she was alive, and now she was uniting it one last time in grief at her death.
Sridevi had always united people, starting with the film industries and cultures she belonged to. The greatest cultural divide in India is between its Northern and Southern cultures. The Dravidian language and cultures of the South shared territories, rulers, literary figures, and religious festivals. The Aryan-based cultures of the North shared a separate history; the country divided across the middle.
Film is simply a recent element of this divide. While artists may move between Bengali, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Marathi, and Hindi cinema (all Northern), or between Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam cinema (all Southern), artists rarely cross between the North/South language groups.
This is not simply a matter of language; it is everything about how filmmakers craft the films. Hindi cinema (what is commonly called “Bollywood”) tends to be glamorous, westernized, and romantic, dealing with relationship drama in luxurious mansions. Telugu cinema in the past was often based on Puranic fantasy stories from Indian mythology, and in the present is filled with modern action films, crime and police dramas. Tamil and Malayalam cinema is novelistic, slow-moving, and character based—while still often including action scenes. Any artist wanting to move between industries must master performance styles that fit within each diverse artistic tradition. In the whole history of Indian film, Sridevi was the only artist to enjoy equal popularity in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Hindi cinema.
Sridevi was born in Chennai to a Tamil-speaking father and Telugu-speaking mother. She made her film debut at age four in a Tamil movie, and appeared in her first Telugu film three years later. She won a Kerala state award for her first Malayalam movie at age eight, and made her Hindi debut at nine—finding acclaim and fame in the Hindi industry two years later in Julie, a remake of a Malayalam film, playing the heroine’s younger sister. Sridevi did the impossible, conquering all of India, before completing the first dozen years of her life.
At age 13, Sridevi appeared in her first role as a lead heroine in the Tamil film Moodru Mudichi. Also starring in that film were the two men in film who probably knew her best both artistically and personally: fellow child star turned lead actor Kamal Haasan and future major star Rajinikanth. They were several years older than her, and yet Sridevi held the center of the film, playing a heroine who survived terrible events, controlled her own life, and made her own choices. Sridevi would work with Kamal and Rajinikanth multiple times in the years since that first film. At her death, they were the actors who appeared most personally broken by grief; Kamal visibly broke down several times during his public statement upon her death. Perhaps their overwhelming grief was because they were the only co-stars who knew her as a young girl, rather than the major star she quickly became.
By her late teens, Sridevi dominated three separate film industries: Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. An actress moving between these three industries is not uncommon. While male stars usually stay within a particular language industry, but actresses are different. The Southern industries have a tradition of “dubbing artists”: women who specialize in providing dialogue for actresses. The same “dubbing artist” will provide the voice for most of a particular language industry’s films; the actresses appearing on screen must simply emote with their face and body.
Because of this tradition, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam films tend to share the same pool of interchangeable actresses, all of whom are dubbed over. Actresses, generally, are seen as unimportant, their actual voices silenced and replaced. The audience does not develop loyalty; one actress is just as good as another. But Sridevi was different. Unlike other actresses, she would not be hired and dubbed over. A Sridevi film became an event in any language. Directors built films and roles around her—a unique situation for these industries. At age 20, Sridevi added another string to her bow when she conquered the unconquerable Hindi industry with her breakthrough film, Himmatwala.
In the South, audiences knew Sridevi for her sensitive performances and phenomenal natural acting ability. However, in her first major Hindi hit, the director made her merely beautiful, sexy, dancing, and desirable. Perhaps it was the language barrier, making it hard for her to take the more complex performances in Hindi. Or perhaps it was simply that Hindi films had no place for a strong actress in that era, when male actors and action films ruled the box office. When one of her greatest Tamil performances, the sensitive film Moondram Pirai, was remade in Hindi as Sadma, it flopped. Yet, when she played a magical snake woman in Nagini, it hit. Sridevi was the only Indian artist, male or female, able to conquer such a wide range of performances, from Hindi film glamour to Southern film realism. Sridevi crossed India’s North-South border by dividing herself in two, becoming two Sridevis.
Suddenly, she left it all. After her marriage to a Hindi film producer with multiple family ties within the Mumbai Hindi film industry, Sridevi retired in order to focus on motherhood. For years, she stayed out of the public eye, raising her two daughters and living within the warm embrace of the Hindi film industry’s social circle. It was only in the mid-2010s that she returned to performing. She returned to film in a new way, a way that might have indicated a revolution in how Indian film functioned.
Since the start of film in India, there have always been two major barriers to films traveling between the Northern and Southern regions. The first is language: Indian audiences (like most audiences) prefer to watch films in their native language. The second is stars: Indian filmgoers possess intense loyalty to their stars. Sridevi, as the star who crossed between languages, was also able to act as an ambassador between Northern and Southern Indian film industries. In her comeback years, she made three films before her death. All three films were dubbed and released simultaneously in Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu. Such simultaneous, multi-language releases are rare in Indian cinemas. Sridevi held an ability to bring all Indians together in a way no other film star, and few other Indian public figures from any walk of life, have been able to do.
Sridevi’s death was the last time she brought all of India together. Southern stars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan flew in from Chennai to attend her funeral in Mumbai, joining Hindi superstar Amitabh Bachchan — the only time these three major stars joined together in grief. News channels in every Indian language reported on her death. Her funeral took place in Mumbai, but prayer meets in her honor occurred in Telugu-speaking Hyderabad and in Tamil-speaking Chennai. Appropriately, an Indian flag covered Sridevi’s coffin — she was a star for all India, in a way no other actor or actress has ever been.