Back in the early 90s, three actresses - Sridevi, Juhi Chawla and Madhuri Dixit were in a kind of tussle for the top that the Kareenas and Katrinas today can never dream of. There were other girls in the game, but none in the league of these three. Every new release from one of the three leading ladies would be a game changer. This was of course before Hum Aapke Hain Kaun happened to put a definitive end to the debate. A year later came Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, putting a new player in the game - Kajol. But by that time the Dixit was too big a force to be threatened by the dusky little girl.
Don’t get me wrong, fans of Raveena, Karishma, Urmila and other 90s girls. Many of them have done good films and memorable roles, but this was a time when the word ‘status’ would be routinely used in conjunction with Sridevi. Of course, stardom is never permanent, and for our heroines it is even more transient. By ’97, Madhuri’s fading career was temporarily redeemed by Dil To Paagal Hai before she wisely tiptoed out of the limelight to enjoy domestic bliss; Juhi Chawla was still a bankable name on the box office; but Sridevi, following the death of her mother and marriage to Boney Kapoor, went out with a bang that was Judaai. While Madhuri went on a hiatus, returning to do a Devdaas and later Aaja Nach Le, Juhi gracefully (whether voluntarily or not) slid into performance-oriented roles befitting her age, Sridevi went out like a star.
Now, two decades since the peak of their box-office wars, it is pleasant to see all three ladies still very much around, though in very different versions.
If some tabloids are to be believed, Madhuri Dixit is trying hard to convince everyone - and herself - that she is still Madhuri Dixit. The lady is reportedly demanding the same respect (and pay packages) as actresses who weren’t born when Tezaab was released. In her last movie Aaja Nach Le, she tried to do a slightly aged version of her most beloved screen self, even adding plot details to accommodate her real-life sojourn in the States, but audiences did not buy it. For reasons best known to herself and her family, she has decided to come back to India for good. You don’t need to read the papers to know that she’s back - you find her ubiquitous smile in departmental stores selling fabric softeners and dishwashers, on hoardings, on TV shows and commercials, using her acting chops and her expressive dancer’s face to sell toothpaste. Time will tell if all this whipped up frenzy can translate to box office returns when her Gulabi Gang and Dedh Ishqiya are eventually released, but speaking strictly for myself, I’m not holding my breath.
Juhi Chawla was always my most favourite. I always voted for her in all popularity polls that pitted her against the Dixit and the Devi (and there were many). When offers got reduced to a trickle, she took the odd film still coming her way and played her roles with élan. Along the way, she got to sink her teeth into meaty, gritty roles like the one in Teen Deewarein and the more recent I Am. Like Asha Parekh and Nanda before her, she has gradually been relegated to bhabhi roles in the majority of her projects. I don’t know if Juhi Chawla the star is satisfied with her place in the industry today, but as a loyal fan, I am more than satisfied to spot my favourite star breathing life and spunk into some otherwise forgettable movies.
And along came Sridevi. If a trailer can really tell you anything about a movie, English Vinglish is going to kick ass. Sri’s vulnerable South Indian housewife act seems to be spot on - the role rests equally on the star persona, her considerable (and mostly underused) acting ability and her real roots so that the character may come across as believable rather than grating. Whether the film lives up to its premise remains to be seen, but as far as comebacks go, Sridevi has played a masterstroke in her choice of a role.
I doubt any actress today can touch the level of stardom the three queens of the 90s enjoyed at the peak of their careers. In the years following their stardom however, they have each played a different game with differing results. Juhi made a smooth transition from star to actress, creating a new post-stardom brand that stands for a guaranteed good performance. Madhuri went out like a star and is trying to come back like one. What really sets Sridevi apart in this context is that she went out like a star and is coming back as an actress. I just can’t wait to watch her perform.
P.S. My starting point here is the year 93-94. Sridevi had already given some of her greatest hits before that time, so this kind of comparison may be fundamentally misplaced. She is also about 4 years older than the other two and entered the industry much younger. Even so, her box office mojo was anything but diminished by the 90's. Kajol at the peak of her career once said in an interview that there have been no stars since the days of Amitabh Bacchan and Sridevi.