Why Sridevi’s Career Can Open Up an Important Discussion On India’s Obsession With The West

Versatile, charismatic, confident, passionate, hilarious – these are the words that come to my mind when I think of the tremendous acting prowess that was Sridevi. I remember hearing “Megha Re Megha” ring from our black double-speaker stereo that sat on a small stool in my New Jersey kitchen, connecting me and bringing me back to my motherland in an instant. I think that if India could be personified, she would be Sridevi – her iconic pan-Indian career spanned fifty years and five languages, highlighting the richness of our culture and all the diversity that exists within the subcontinent.

Not too long before her death, I started following Sridevi on Instagram, noting how she had changed since she was “Hawa Hawai” in “Mr India”. Still elegant and graceful, Sridevi seemed like a happening yet doting Mumbai mother. Her feed was filled with photographs of her family, stills of her wearing beautiful high-fashion couture and hanging out with Bollywood’s best. However, it was pretty obvious that her appearance had to be solid and perfect for her to stay relevant with today’s age group, a dangerous trend that I feel is causing much harm to Bollywood’s leading ladies and our national identity at large.

I think that Sridevi’s death can open up an important discussion of the beauty standards that are becoming normalized in the Indian world, the stress they may cause, and how we can change the conversation about what it really means to be beautiful within any skin color, caste, and religion, and most importantly – age.

Changing Times

Just eight months ago, Sridevi’s film “Mom” released with decent success at the box-office. Then 54, the actress portrayed a mother avenging her daughter’s rape and acting in scenes that required her to hold a handgun, break-into homes, and stand-up to villains. Notably, her acting in these roles was quite different from what most actresses her age are made to do in a film.

As a quick comparison, Jaya Bachchan was 52 when she played Nandini Raichand in “Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham”… her role required her to act as a quintessential, homely Indian mother conducting aarti processions during Diwali, sacrificing her life for her family’s, her voice for her husband’s and her mornings for getting him ready for work. If you note the difference in appearance between Sridevi at 54 and Jaya Bachchan at 52, I believe it would be an insightful indicator as to the increasing demands women have to look a certain way if they want to have access to more diverse roles in Bollywood.

It would be difficult to imagine that anyone would think to cast Jaya Bachchan in the same role that Sridevi played in “Mom”, mostly because the collective Indian conscious considers her to be an “aunty” or “mummy” type. In order or Mrs Bachchan to have gotten a glimpse of consideration for a similar part, she would have likely had to appear 10 to 15 years younger than her actual age. Why can’t our “aunty”-like and “mummy”-like older actresses be at their natural weight, natural skin colour and full Indianness when playing these non-traditional roles?

For Sridevi, I imagine that the pressure to stay relevant with today’s fan base required an intense relationship with her physical health, whether it was through cosmetic surgery or a strenuous workout regimen. Which leads me to ask, where have our values gone as a nation? Why do we want our non-Western and fully Indian actresses to fit into a westernized box?

A Threat to our National Identity

I firmly believe that mothers are the soul of every nation, but even more so, I believe this is true in the Indian context. Mothers weave together our different ancestries by acting as living family trees, feeding us ancient medicinal remedies, ageing with grace and splendour and much more. But I feel what’s most comforting about a strong, idyllic Indian mother is that she owns her beauty in its traditional context, not wanting to conform to the ways of the world. When we consistently send our mothers and our women a message about how their value is no longer relevant if they don’t look a certain way, can’t speak English well, or dress too traditionally – I think we are on the path to becoming extremely lost as a nation.

One quick google can yield hundreds of results about Hollywood actresses who have undergone  plastic surgery procedures to crystallise their faces with eternal youth, insanity that causes women to sacrifice their self-identity for the collective conscious of “beauty.” Given the endless amount of pressure that modern women already face to be ambitious career seekers and maintain family relationships, normalising a national narrative that then tells women their looks aren’t American or European enough is an assault to our identity.
Classic Indian features such as wide noses, hairiness, dark skin and even dark hair are considered to be outdated in much of Bollywood. Unfortunately, our industry and country at large are going through a phase of disowning the natural features that define us as a people. Colourism is a social disease that pumps over 23.3 billion rupees into an ever-growing market that aims at killing our inherent Indian skin pigment that white individuals spend hours on foreign and exotic beaches to achieve.

Unfortunately, our very own Sridevi is no exception to this phenomenon. Although I feel it is unfair to speculate on what caused her death, I think it is worthy to note the dramatic change in her appearance over the years. It is evident that her skin appears to be lighter as she has aged, reminding many of us of how dark-skinned actresses such as Rekha have traditionally been treated in Bollywood. Avoiding rejection is something that women have to do on a regular basis to live under the threat of Patriarchy, and with Bollywood being a male-dominated industry, our men require women to achieve superhuman and non-native standards of beauty to fit in.

Who are we leaving behind?

It is without question that Bollywood actors who fit the mould are quickly catapulted to God-like status in India without much second thought. The sheer influence that celebrities have on the national psyche is pretty remarkable, and a woman like Sridevi was no exception.
Before Sridevi, films depended on male stars to carry them into high-profits and shatter box office records. Sri broke the mould in this regard, paving the way for Madhuri Dixit and other now-famous female stars to headline blockbuster films and achieve national fame. Her remarkable career is a testament to the potential influence that just one individual can make in an industry and a country at large.

The social influence that caused Sridevi’s changing appearance has also rejected large numbers of our Indian society as well, more specifically, the less-privileged. Dalits and other lower caste individuals tend to be darker skinned and as a result of this and many other socio-cultural reasons have been persecuted heavily in our country throughout history. By making Fair & Lovely as popular in our bathroom cabinets as Parle-G crackers are in our kitchen cabinets, we are reinforcing a rhetoric that decrees darkness as an inferior characteristic.

I feel that India’s rapid economic growth is going to be a catalyst for even more division between our already heavily-divided country. As always, large cities like Mumbai will continually industrialise while leaving villagers and “gao”-folk in the dust, creating more exclusionary and less intersectional spaces. Terms like “bain-ji” have started to emerge more strongly in the elite-rhetoric, casting off anyone who does not fit the standard for what the new India should look like – light, English-speaking, and dressed in Western clothing.

The Loss of an Icon

Sridevi’s death also marks the demise of the modern Indian woman meant before Westernisation took over. The actress bridged a gap between traditional and modern; she could pull off a stellar classical dance ensemble in “Nagina” and also incorporate more Western moves into her repertoire like in “Hawa Hawai.” Her ability to integrate two conflicting ideologies into her persona made her versatility that much more marketable and impactful, and much easier to connect with. Sridevi’s ability to embrace trends that came with changing times was never overshadowed by her Indianness. We see this clearly in “English Vinglish”, where she plays a housewife and entrepreneur moving to the United States. In fact, in this film, she is the perfect example of what it means to become modern instead of losing oneself in Westernisation, and reminding us that the two terms do not need to be interchangeable.

What’s really sad is that many of our new actresses won’t be able to do what early Sridevi excelled at: creating and mastering authentic content to reach the heartland and outlying states in India. Sridevi provided a universality that was rooted in a connection to our collective heritage; she glued us together in a way that an Alia Bhatt or an Anushka Sharma would never be able to do. The supersaturation of social media in Indian hands is also ailing our country by bringing Western expectations to our feeds each and every morning, making the emergence of a new Sridevi almost impossible.

The true measure of an excellent Indian actress is one who is able to bridge the gaps between who we are and who we need to become in order to progress as a nation. Progress can be defined in many ways, and while a growing economy may be able to lift many of our fellow Indians out of poverty, losing culture and our national identity is not something that we will be able to reconcile with checks, ledgers or even demonetisation. Like Sridevi, we must learn to become both the Nagin and the Bijli ki Rani; on the one hand strong, assertive and protective of our culture and the other willing to adjust our sails with the changing winds of time. Let’s hope we can make her proud.