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Celebrating the timeless effervescence of Sridevi in Mr. India as the film clocks 35 years

Celebrating the timeless effervescence of Sridevi in Mr. India as the film clocks 35 years

Celebrating the timeless effervescence of Sridevi in Mr. India as the film clocks 35 years
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By Sneha Bengani  Jun 6, 2022 7:37 PM IST (Published)

As the vivacious crime reporter for a local newspaper, Sridevi brings to the film all her charisma, glamour, spunk, and exuberance. It is difficult to label Mr. India under any one genre. It would be limiting, reductive, and stupid to even try. The same holds true for Sridevi’s Seema.

Mr. India, which released 35 years ago to much critical acclaim and box office success, catapulted to stardom all its key players — director Shekhar Kapur, hero Anil Kapoor, heroine Sridevi, and villain Amrish Puri.

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It was Kapur’s second film, which opened in 1987, four years after his soulful, wholesome debut Masoom, anchored by a terrific Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. Kapur has made several films since Mr. India, but to date, his desi superhero iteration continues to be his most seminal work.
Until Mr. India came his way, Puri’s most notable films belonged to Shyam Benegal’s repertoire, where he was a staple. Whether it be Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Kalyug, or Mandi, he featured in them prolifically. Though he’d appeared in blockbusters such as Qurbani, Dostana, Naseeb, Hero, and Janbaaz, it was Mr. India that gave him Mogambo — his first truly iconic character, cementing his position as one of the most loved antagonists of the Hindi film industry. Karan Arjun’s Ranaji and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s Bauji would come to him years later.
The same holds true for Kapoor. Sure, he’d already done Janbaaz and Karma, but those were ensemble films whose success or failure didn’t rest on his shoulders and, therefore, couldn’t be considered landmark films that he needed to shape his early acting career. Mr. India was. His first outing as a solo hero, it turned out to be a superhit — his first true, blue blockbuster — giving his filmography the gravitas he was looking for. It accelerated his career and gave it a momentum that hasn’t lost pace even today, 35 years and over 100 films later.
Sridevi was grinding hard, proving her mettle in film after film when she was cast as crime reporter Seema in Mr. India. All of 24, she was already a star with movies like Himmatwala, Sadma, Maqsad, Aakhree Raasta, Nagina, and Karma to her credit. But it was Mr. India that first provided her the stage to showcase her remarkable versatility in all its glory.
The film is filled with a bevy of formidable male actors. Other than Puri’s Mogambo and Kapoor’s orphaned street violinist Arun Verma, it has Ashok Kumar as scientist Professor Sinha, Satish Kaushik as the young effeminate cook Calendar, and Annu Kapoor as Seema’s newspaper editor Mr. Gaitonde. Harish Patel also makes an appearance as the corrupt grocer Roop Chand and then there’s Sharat Saxena as Mogambo’s aide Daga. However, there’s only one woman in Mr. India. Sridevi’s delightfully inimitable Seema. As the vivacious crime reporter for a local newspaper, she brings to the film all her charisma, glamour, spunk, and exuberance.
It is difficult to label Mr. India under any one genre. It would be limiting, reductive, and stupid to even try. In the garb of a superhero fantasy film, it is a poignant commentary on the deep class divide that has plagued India ever since Independence, the chasm now grown into an ugly monster that multiple governments have dutifully fed and raised to their benefit over the years.
It also provides a window into what it could be like to live with and fend for several children all being raised under one roof as one family. Among the last few Hindi films made with strong undercurrents of socialist and philanthropic idealism, Mr. India’s values and thematic concerns feel like a relic of the distant past in the present world where individualism and capitalism reign supreme. Today, 35 years later, when hyper-nationalism and jingoism are being shoved down the audience’s throats through every other film, Mr. India stands tall as a refreshing reminder that a movie can bolster patriotism without fanning ideas of communalism or theocracy.
Mr. India is a product of a time when people still tried to look for unity in diversity and prosperity in poverty. Curiously, the film — the last written by the celebrated duo Saleem-Javed — does not even once hint at Mogambo’s religion or caste. An outsider, he is shown as the enemy of the entire country and not one specific sect. Mogambo was deeply ambitious and secular in a way no contemporary villain is.
Much like the film, you cannot box Sridevi’s Seema either. She metamorphoses like a sorceress, gliding through it all, each act more transfixing than the previous. In one scene, she becomes the Hawana dancer Ms. Hawa Hawaai, eating fruits off her hat and pulling off bling like she was born to shimmy in it. In another, draped in an electric blue sari, she is her sensuous, seductive best, serenading, confessing her love for a man she’s never seen with a conviction that made an entire nation swoon with her. Raveena Tandon’s Tip Tip Barsa Paani would follow years later.
Then, her Charlie Chaplin sequence. She performed it with such irreverence and abandon, that she became the numero uno comedienne — a leading lady who was stunningly beautiful, could make you shed copious tears, and also had an enviable comic timing, the kind that gave the best in business a run for their money. Thirty-five years ago, heroines didn’t do comedy. They looked pretty, danced pretty, cried pretty, pooped pretty, and died pretty. Sridevi’s Seema changed that forever.
And finally, the parody between her, Kapoor’s Arun, and the children over a football that she refuses to return. It is a masterclass on how to use a medley effectively to further the plot, develop character, and heighten tension, all the while building on entertainment. After experiencing what parody, when done right, can do, several legendary filmmakers dabbled in it. Yash Chopra famously paired Sridevi and Kapoor again in his 1991 cult classic Lamhe, which features a memorable musical sequence with the two leads, Waheeda Rehman, and Anupam Kher — all cine stalwarts — against the gorgeous London landscape. The parody stands out like a sparkling jewel in an otherwise somber film about love and loss. Next, Sooraj Barjatya used it to much acclaim, first in his directorial debut, the generation-defining love saga Maine Pyar Kiya, and then later in the family drama Hum Saath Saath Hain.
Interestingly, both Arun and Mogambo never change costumes in the entire film. As people, they are quite predictable too — one-note characters embodying good and bad. It is Seema who inhabits the vast world that lies in between and makes it look worth living in. If Arun and Mogambo are noteworthy calendar dates, Seema is the celebration. If they are Mr. India’s canvas, she is the colors. If they are the night sky, she’s the fireworks. If they are the greens in a garden, she is all the flowers. She is the flourishes, the fragrance, the laughs, the tears, the antics, the octaves, the histrionics. The film is named Mr. India, but it, indisputably, is a Sridevi show through and through.
Read other pieces by Sneha Bengani here.
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