Much Before She Became A Bollywood Goddess, Sridevi Played God on-Screen
NEW DELHI, (IANS) – Shree Amma Yanger Ayyappan, famous forever as Sridevi, would have been celebrating her 60th birthday this year, had she not met her premature end at the Jumeirah Emirates Tower Hotel in Dubai on February 24, 2018.
In this book extract from ‘Sridevi: The South Years’, published by Rupa, ad world personality and National Award-winning author Amborish Roychoudhury disputes the popular theory on Sridevi’s debut film, and looks back at her entry into cinema (and a career that spanned 300 films) as a child artiste playing Lord Murugan in Sandow Chinnappa Thevar’s Tamil devotional movie, ‘Thunaivan’, starring A.V.M. Rajan and Sowcar Janaki.
Decades before she became a film goddess, Sridevi was playing a god on-screen and the south Indian moviegoing audience was eating out of her hands. I do not use the term ‘south Indian’ loosely like we often tend to do.
Sridevi played child gods and demi-gods in a bevy of Tamil, Malayalam as well as Kannada movies. Owing to her sweeping success as Lord Murugan in her Tamil debut ‘Thunaivan’, the kid Sridevi was flooded with offers to play deities in film after film.
She played Murugan in films like ‘Kumara Sambhavam’, ‘Aathi Parasakthi’ and ‘Agathiyar’. ‘Kumara Sambhavam’ was multilingual, shot also in Malayalam where she was Subramanian, the same deity who’s referred to as Murugan. She also appeared as Krishna in a Tamil film called ‘Agathiyar’.
It was like an invisible door had flung open suddenly. Close on the heels of Tamil and Malayalam hits, the Telugu film industry beckoned too. Even in those days, even as a tiny human being, Sridevi had a quality to her act that would immediately call attention to itself. Like her first outing as Muruga, all her subsequent roles sparkled with a level of authenticity and comfort that tells you even she believed this is what she was born to do.
Like most Tamilians who are religiously inclined, the famous Sandow Chinappa Thevar was quite obsessed with the stories of Lord Muruga and his exploits. He was known to donate a huge part of his bounty from the box-office collection of his films to Murugan temples. Mid-shooting, he was wont to start praying, mumbling his entreaties to the God, directly asking him to ensure that the shot goes well. He made four films with Lord Muruga at the center: ‘Deivam’, ‘Thiruvarul’, ‘Murugan Adimai’ and ‘Thunaivan’.
Murugan, or Muruga, is an extremely popular deity in the Tamil pantheon of gods. Akin to how Ganesha is in Maharashtra or Durga / Kali in West Bengal. Muruga, variously known as Kartikeya or Subramanian, is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and the sibling of Ganesha.
A bit of digging will tell you that till the 7th century, Kartikeya was one of the most important deities in north India. After this his brother Ganesha started gaining more popularity in the north and west while Muruga continued to grow in significance in the south of India, more so in Tamil Nadu. So much so that according to legends, it was Muruga who instructed the sage Agathiyar (known as Agastya Rishi in the rest of India) to create the Tamil language.
Like his brother Ganesha, Muruga has been worshipped as a child-God. But unlike his sibling, Muruga has been portrayed countless times on screen, with actors like Master Sridhar and the child Sridevi playing the part. And both apparently played roles in a film called ‘Kandan Karunai’ (1967). I won’t dwell too long on this, as the details are not well etched out. On multiple online platforms, it is ‘Kandan Karunai’ that’s been stated as Sridevi’s movie debut. In fact, it was Sridevi herself who tweeted a song from the film, back in 2013. But if one looks closely, the child actor in the song doesn’t look anything like her.
The film is available on YouTube, and one can see that the child actor credited for the role was Master Sridhar. My dear friend Rajagopal Prabhakar scrubbed through the video to look for her and stumbled onto one little blink-and-you-miss apparition. So, this author, for the purpose of this book, would consider ‘Thunaivan’ as Sridevi’s bona fide movie debut.
Thunaivan, literally meaning ‘companion’, is the story of a devout Murugan worshipper who undergoes crises that test his faith, and yet holds steadfast to his belief. Valayudham is an orphan boy brought up in a Murugan temple but is thrown out of place when he’s accused by the temple trustee of stealing a ruby from the lord’s spear.
By the time the ruby is found, Valayudham is long gone. By a quirk of fate, he ends up as a fruit vendor, and then by dint of honesty and sheer hard work amasses a certain amount of wealth and marries a woman after his own heart.
To his utter dismay, though, his wife Maragatham turns out to be an atheist. He makes his peace with it, but faith plays spoilsport as their firstborn has major health issues. To save her son’s life, Maragatham embraces her husband’s faith and prays to Lord Muruga to spare the child. As the couple nearly kills themselves, Muruga appears as a little boy and blesses them, making the child better.
Sridevi makes her appearance as Murugan at around the two-hour mark. Wearing a dhoti and smeared with vibhuti all over, she looked resplendent as a mischievous little god. She was miles away from child artists who were put on the frame just to look cute and draw some ah-has from the audience. Don’t get me wrong. Little Sridevi here was cuteness personified. But even as a toddler, she was completely at ease with the camera.
If we didn’t know better, she seemed like a little person who already exuded professionalism as an actor. There are barely a few minutes of screen time, but she had that can’t-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen look.