Nik Sharma reflects on his encounter with the late, iconic Indian actress
By Nik Sharma
Being a queer kid in India wasn’t easy. I inhabited two worlds, a fantasy one where I could live openly in a welcoming society where who I was attracted to would be the least of my worries, and then in reality, which was the opposite of that. I can’t recall knowing of any out queer Indians and consequently, I had no comparative scale or measure to guide me in my formative years. I found my benchmarks instead in books, comics, and movies, especially the stories that revolved around characters who led secret lives and had secret identities, keeping their true natures hidden from the world. There were the usual suspects, superheroes like Batman, Superman, and the X-Men, but there was also an unlikely actress that captivated me: the Bollywood icon Sridevi.
"...Perhaps it was the way her lips teased as they came together to form a smile, or the playful flutter of her lashes as she moved her eyes when she danced..."
Sridevi worked in some 300 movies over a career that spanned more than four decades, and she’s one of the most recognizable and beloved actresses across India, having inspired an entire generation of actors to emulate her massive success. Some have compared the actress and her career to Meryl Streep’s, and Sridevi was also voted “India’s Greatest Actress in 100 Years” in a national poll. Perhaps it was the way her lips teased as they came together to form a smile, or the playful flutter of her lashes as she moved her eyes when she danced, but from a young age I was as enchanted by her as was the rest of the country.
At around nine or ten years of age, I came across a movie called Nagina, in which Sridevi plays a benevolent enchantress who can switch at will from human to snake form, which typically involved a “snake dance” that led to her serpentine transformation. This dance eventually made its way to pop culture and makes it appearance in movies like Monsoon Wedding and Bride and Prejudice. I knew every step to the dance (surprisingly my parents never took this as an omen of my sexuality). This was the first time in a Bollywood movie where I saw a protagonist who had to live in fear, lest people find out who she really was—knowing that I was gay, I forged a special bond with her character and her harbored secret.
A few years later, I got the opportunity to meet her in person. My dad worked as a photographer for a movie magazine and a close friend of his was the late actor Vinod Mehra, who at the time was producing a movie called Gurudev, in which Sridevi played one of the lead actresses. My father arranged for me to meet my idol!
"On a chair in one corner sat my hero,
glowing with regal elegance."
On that day, the film crew was shooting a dance scene in a studio in Bombay. The stage was set with backup dancers, large cameras scattered across the room, fog machines rolling out white puffy clouds, and of course, spotlights. On a chair in one corner sat my hero, glowing with regal elegance. As a makeup artist fussed over her, she scooped a spoonfuls of kheer (an Indian rice pudding) from a container and tried to squeeze them her mouth, dodging the efforts of her makeup artist.
We approached and my father introduced me, explaining that I was one of her biggest fans. But as she called me over for a hug, I discovered that I couldn’t move. I was frozen in shock; my body was unresponsive; I couldn’t speak. My dad kept nudging me to do something, say something, but I was terrified, starstruck. I prayed for this awkward moment to quickly end.
With a graceful smile, she yanked me over. She told me not to be scared and gave me a little peck on the cheek as she hugged me. As a celebrity, she was probably very accustomed to these types of embarrassing moments with her fans. I, on the other hand, embarrassed myself and my poor dad (I did get a little talk on our way back home). But I survived, collected my shattered pride, and managed to make it into adulthood.
I eventually moved to America, came out, and got married. Sridevi continued to act and make blockbuster movies. She took a hiatus from acting but in 2012, to much acclaim, she returned to the screen in English Vinglish. Unlike most Bollywood films, this movie was first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it garnered critical acclaim and became a huge success both in India and abroad.
Late last month, Sridevi unexpectedly passed away in a drowning accident in Dubai. It came as a sad shock to all who knew and idolized her, and to those of us that had grown up watching her movies. In reading memorials and poring through my memories, I learned that Sridevi was an avid home cook, and at one point she was even a spokesperson for India’s popular Indo-Chinese Ching’s Secret Foods spice blends. Her favorite dessert was reportedly a red velvet cake, but I will always remember her for that container of kheer that was she was eating when I met her.
Related Reading + Eating:
Nik Sharma's Kheer
Recipe excerpted from "An Indian Feast for the Weekend," which first appeared in Issue 2: Makers, featuring Nik on the cover.