Opening the app:
It was a usual Sunday morning on the 25th of February 2018. I got up and checked my smart phone for any important pop-ups or messages. One news app had a picture pop-up feature which shows news updates as pictures. It had a picture of actress Sridevi. I swiped it out without reading the headlines thinking it was just another empty sensationalizing crap. Later I got ready for the day and sat to go over the daily news. Sridevi’s picture popped up again except this time in all the other news apps too. Headlines: “Sridevi passes away at 54 after a cardiac arrest in Dubai”. I was staring at the screen blank for some moments. Without reading anything further, I closed the smart phone and walked aloof to go out. My wife was at the corridor. I mentioned to her that Sridevi had died. She made a joking remark whether I needed some medical attention or if I should take the day off to mourn. She knows that Sridevi was my favourite actress.
There is some news which you don’t want to believe that it’s real. When I met my friends group in the morning, I brought the topic of Sridevi and discussed with them if they had similar personalities in their countries over whom a whole generation fantasized upon. The Italians mentioned Sophia Loren and the rest of the English and the Germans in the group also adhered to her as a comparator. They got excited on talking about Sophie Loren. I let them talk and went in my limbo. That afternoon after meeting the group, I took out for a lone walk in Heidelberg. I called my wife and told her it was bit serious and that I was having an unexplainable uneasiness the whole day. I had nothing to do with Sridevi personally; I haven’t met her at all, but the news felt as if my base was shaken. Coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, my wife couldn’t think of any public persona analogous to whom an average citizen would look up to in her country. Communism might have spoiled them: all the hole-digger could look up to was the person who was closing the hole. She said that she wouldn’t have grievance over no-one, except family and friends. May be it’s an Indian’s connection to the public life that there are many public personalities that the society in India normally look up to.
A similar feeling with a way more pronounced impact happened with the demise of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in July 2015. Suddenly when something, which has been in the background all the while or which has been a part of you for the whole life, goes missing, it emphasizes the hard truth that nothing is permanent. The presence of this element had been taken for granted. Like losing your favourite shirt or your pet dying or when a favourite cafe that you had frequented had been demolished or the tree which you had always played with had been uprooted. It was such a happening. If you had known that cafe will be demolished soon, may be you would have chosen to spend more time in the cafe to linger in its mood. But the sudden unavailability, gives you this empty and guilty feel that you could have done something about it. Likewise, I couldn’t do anything about Dr. Kalam or Sridevi now, but it re-instated one important thing that nothing is permanent. Dr. Kalam’s death made me dumbfound and Sridevi’s death made me think clear on why I was shaken. It made me conscious and gave a change in mentality to approach the people I have in my life now with a sense of gratitude, to take time for them and develop experience with them by giving them full attention. It’s better than longing for them once they are gone.
To know who Sridevi is, one should ask the 70’s and 80’s Indian audience who had the wholesome impact in many of her works. It all began for me in my early teens when I was watching “Johnny” on TV. Johnny (1980) was a Tamil romantic drama movie directed by Mr. Mahendran; Lead cast: Sridevi, Rajnikanth and Deepa; Music by Maestro Ilayaraja; Lyrics: Kannadasan and Gangai Amaran; Singers: S.P. Balasubramaniam, S. Janaki, S.P.Sailaja, Jenny and Sujatha. I might have watched this around late nineties. I had read in the newspaper on some morning that they are playing “Johnny” in the afternoon. There was no internet at that time and any information about the past had to be read somewhere or mentioned by someone. I remembered my dad saying once that this movie was much loved in his times. Rajnikanth being my favourite, I decided to check out this almost two decades old movie. Writing now with the same excitement in 2018, it’s almost 4 decades old!
Movie began at 2pm. Mom and dad had gone to their bedroom for an afternoon nap. I was watching this alone in the living room. Scene by scene, every aspect of this movie was beginning to give me weird goose bumps. It was one of a kind experience: given the intense romance and I in my teens, possibly it was the first signs of my puberty or some mysterious attraction to this idea called “woman”. There was no one around. In one of the occasional 5 min advertisement breaks, I stood up and closed all the doors and windows and made everything dark. Instinctively I wanted to have this movie as my only focus. I wanted to amplify this unknown weird and positive feel that the movie was giving. Set dark, I let the TV continue cast its hypnotizing spell over me. Music was haunting. I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen. The romance was making me melt on my chair.
The plot is about that of an outcast conman (Johnny played by Rajnikanth) accidently getting to meet his idol, a singer (Archana played by Sridevi). One meet leads to another. At every step each lets the other have the choice. They fall in love. There is immense mutual respect in their love that when the proceedings goes very devotional between them, enters a doppelganger Barber (Vidyasagar also played by Rajnikanth). Vidyasagar was much disturbed by a set of events which makes him think low of all women. In a mix of circumstances, Johnny goes on the run and Vidyasagar switches places as Johnny and enters Archana’s home. The story is about how Vidyasagar’s demeaning attitude towards women impacts the relationship between Archana and Johnny.
I believe that every person has a unique feature. It could be physical or behavioural. It’s this feature which draws us to that person. I call it a “Lucky Charm”. For Sridevi it was her voice! Although its S.Janaki, Jency, S.P. Sailaja and Sujatha, the professional singers who rendered their voice to Archana in the songs, Mahendran’s move to have Sridevi as the singer Archana is a genius casting move. We tend to adore her voice even when she speaks.
Aside casting, the screenplay took a central role in showing the development between two characters. There is much charm in the interplay. The lead cast is adorable in every frame and music is ever-pleasing. The essence of the movie lies in the admiration and devotion Johnny and Archana show towards each other. There is love. Not love at first sight, rather an admiration slowly growing into a lasting devotion. I, witnessing this, was travelling along with their emotions and my state reached a devotional level too. The emotions were raw and contagious. For such a perceived intensity in romance, there is no skin show and the lead characters don’t touch each other at all! Probably this is also a first of the sort movie to convey romance in a much mature and dignified way. For a society which was indulging in objectifying women as normal, as in stalking, eve-teasing, dumb portrayals, a variant like this was a welcome exclamation mark. Moreover Archana is shown as someone accomplished and independent. This broke a huge template in a patriarchal society, where women were seen just as burden. Dowry, an issue which is still contemporary in 2018, has a root-cause in this mindset.
Archana is a soft-spoken accomplished person, who is down to earth, compassionate, a personality of integrity, honest, delicate and all of which in turn elevated her beauty to a mystical standard. This had a set a new template in my naive mind on how a woman should be. Johnny on the other hand, unlike other male characters depicted in movies, for the first time, behaves with full respect to a female character. He had set a template on how women should be treated. For an empty and susceptible mind I had and probably the timing of the first ball hair, it had two outcomes. First the experience of this movie had left an everlasting magic in me. Second the templates set by the leads, raised my expectancy on a partner to such a level that In my mid-twenties, whether it was I considering a girl as a partner or whenever my mom would bring up the topic of finding a bride, my only condition was the that the woman should be like Johnny’s Sridevi. Girls were suddenly desolate!
But, is such a woman real? Archana is accomplished, conservative, soft spoken, devotional to her partner and goes miles to sacrifice for her partner, accommodates the dearest ones of her partner, has elegance in talking, non-abusive, positive talking and beautiful. Puberty asked me to look for all these qualities in a woman. There was no woman with all this as one package. One or the other was missing. After trying to fit so many women to this template, I came to the conclusion that such a woman was non-existent. But it can’t be true. If some condition helps you narrow down to a satisfying selection from a big bunch, it’s a good condition. But if it is going to remove everything from the list, there is something wrong with the condition itself.
This realization took me years. Maturity made me realize that such a woman can never be real as Archana herself is a fantasy of a “man” – Director Mahendran. It’s true that these qualities can make a person admirable, but equally those can be expected from a man too. Is such a man real? – Also can never be. Do I have all those qualities that I dare to demand them from my partner/ candidate? – No. An accomplished man is not necessarily conservative, a conservative man is not necessarily handsome and a handsome man is not necessarily respectful etc.
Breaking the template:
Mahendran, to elevate the positivity in the characterization might have made Archana and Johnny just as a collage of best qualities i.e. qualities found in different people put together as two people. In reality everyone has a positive and a negative side. Mahendran does not explore this negative side of his leads. He defines just the positive traits in two characters and lets them interact. By this he manages to depict a best practice for a relationship. Setting aside this positive/ negative discussion, I feel that a healthy partnership lies in cherishing the person for what they are and for what qualities they already have. Expecting all positive in one person can be nice fantasy, but such a fantasy will also be boring. Tuning to reality, accepting the person for what they are and admiring them for it would take much more courage and maturity than expecting to just court with the best. As much as how the fantasy is endearing, such an expectation towards a partner or candidate also sounds snobbish. Hoping to meet that one in a million person might tend us to disapprove and be disrespectful to the hundred near us for what they are.
Sridevi’s demise taught me two things.
One is to approach the people I have with much more focus and value. It is important to take time for those dear people who cherished your presence as well. It’s simply a law of nature that you might miss them forever in a blink of a moment.
Second is that Archana was merely a fantasy. When you find such a person to whom you have a “calling” for, don’t let an Archana/ Johnny like template stop you from giving them a chance. You will never know: that “calling” might even make you look past their short-comings and make you focus on just their presence. Such a presence might not only be overwhelming, but also as devotional as the Archana-Johnny that Mahendran made many fantasize upon.
R.I.P. Sridevi 13 August 1963 – 24 February 2018
Whatever impact Archana left on me is there to stay. It’s a mesmerizing memoir what Sridevi left for her spectators: that shrilly voice has thankfully been captured for me watch in repeated loops.
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Tributes for Johnny, Sridevi and crew
Wiki: “… The scene where Archana proposes Johnny was shot in Ooty in a bungalow at midnight. When the scene was shot, the whole unit was silent; they saw only the characters of the film, not Rajini and Sridevi. After the scene was shot, Rajini appreciated Sridevi acting and mentioned to Mahendran that though he tried, she overshadowed in the scene”
Wiki: “…Cinemalead wrote: “Johnny is a landmark film which illustrated the life of two lookalike characters and how their activities affect each other. [..] Portrayal of a double role in a movie never been handled so artistically till then as done in this commercially successful film, which is remembered even today for its beautiful making. This was one of the finest films in Tamil cinema for its making and songs. Rajini and Sridevi excelled in their acting and this film became memorable in their careers. Both got under the skin of their characters and made the film a landmark.””
Wiki: “…The Hindu wrote: “In a film where Rajinikanth played two contrasting roles, Sridevi effortlessly stole the show with her extraordinary performance as a singer hopelessly in love with a conman””
Wiki: “…The soundtrack and background score, composed by Maestro Ilaiyaraaja were highly regarded as one of the greatest compositions of all-time”
Newsminute wrote “Sridevi is no more, but Archana will live forever: Why I fell in love with ‘Johnny’: Sridevi’s performance in Johnny was extraordinarily intense and subtly layered…”