When I woke up to the news of Sridevi’s demise yesterday, I fervently hoped that it was a ‘death hoax’ and someone would call me soon to say, “It was a mistake. Sri is alive.”

But when my worst fears were confirmed and I learnt that she had passed away close to midnight on February 24 in Dubai with husband Boney Kapoor by her side, I just slumped in my chair. I felt a lot older and was so deeply saddened by the news that I’m yet to recover from it.

Okay, let me put things into perspective. Sridevi or Pappi, as she was called by her family, was not a friend. But she was the darling of the masses for over three decades. And for those of us who started Hindi cinema reportage at the start of the ’80s, she was someone who dominated our thoughts.

Personally and professionally, No 1 was always a lonely spot and Sri, who wore the mantle of top dog for the longest time, never let her mask slip in front of anyone but her immediate family. Fiercely protective about her private life, she hated being probed, whether it was about her mother who controlled her finances or Mithun Chakraborty, who had stolen her heart.

The only time she broke down (or rather the first time it became public knowledge) was at the start of the ’90s, when she lost her father, Ayyapan Yanger. She was shooting for Boney’s Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1993) then. That was perhaps one of the earliest times when she sought refuge in his home in Lokhandwala. The company of Boney’s parents — Surinder and Nirmala Kapoor — gave her solace.

Interviewing Sri was always a task. A person of few words, getting an answer out of her was tough. Yet, I have notched up some really terrific interviews with her. Both of us spoke Tamil and perhaps that’s why Sri gave me more concessions than she did to other journos.

However, the atmosphere around her was crackling. She was deified all over South India, long before she came to Mumbai. Chances were that you would be trampled upon by her fans if you were travelling to a shoot with her. Like this one time when we went to Visakhapatnam for a shoot of a film called Jaani Dost (1983). She was pairing up with Jeetendra in the Hindi version and Krishna in the Telugu version. As bystanders, our jaw dropped because in the sweltering summer heat of Andhra Pradesh, at least 20,000 had come from nearby villages and townships just to get a glimpse of their devi.

She was riding such high in the ’80s that soon after Himmatwala and Mawaali (both of which released in 1983) followed by Maqsad (1984), she became the reigning queen of Hindi cinema.

But she was no fluke. Like Jeetendra, with whom she had done 15-odd films, had once told me, “As far as Sri goes, I admired her when she was a newcomer. I admire her even now.” He added, “She wasn’t the original choice for Himmatwala. It was supposed to be Rekha. But director K Raghavendra Rao asked me to see this new girl. Sri landed Himmatwala and the rest is history.”

Jeetu also recalled her dedication. “She was a fabulous dancer. And I was like a parrot. I would just parrot my steps and keep doing rehearsals. Though Sri got her steps right the first time itself, she would patiently rehearse with me. Her dedication should be applauded,” he said. Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor and Anil Kapoor clamoured to do a film with her. Dimple Kapadia, Amrita Singh and Meenakshi Seshadri mostly did those films that were rejected by Sridevi.

I remember the time in 1987, when we wrapped up an interview on a flight from Mumbai to Chennai where she told me, “I’m absolutely fed up of doing films where a heroine is just required to stand around as a showpiece.”

By this time she was refusing more movies than accepting them. It didn’t matter to her even if the film was a Toofan (1989) with Amitabh.

In his biography by Harper Collins, Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored that I co-authored with him, Rishi says, “There was only one heroine who was a little reluctant to work with me, very likely because she was the bigger star at the time. Sridevi was making waves and I had hit a plateau when we worked together in Nagina (1986). She was also very reclusive. I was later told that she was an extremely shy person and very inhibited.”

“One of our most embarrassing moments was when we were shooting a song for Nagina at RK Studios. When you are in the midst of a ‘take’ and the assistant cameraman suddenly says the magazine has run out (when the camera needs a new roll of film), it is a very awkward moment for actors. The lights are on, you are in position, and you have to hold it, looking odd and static, while a new film is loaded. During Nagina, Sridevi and I found ourselves in that awkward situation, just standing there, waiting. When she suddenly spoke to me and said, ‘Sir, I have seen Khel Khel Mein four times,’ I was so taken aback. I could only mumble something about a film of hers that I had seen and that was it.”

“That was the only conversation I had with Sridevi all through the filming of Nagina. Otherwise, it was always ‘Namasteji’ and ‘Good Night ji.’

It was during the making of Chandni (1989) that we became friendly. She opened up to me and a new level of comfort also improved our performance. Yashji (Chopra) gave us a free hand in the film, leaving a lot of room for improvisation. It worked well since I had to be spontaneous and improvise on set, and so did Sri. She contributed a great deal towards making scenes work. The ‘cognac, sharab nahi hoti’ sequence, for instance, was entirely improvised. It was not in the original script. It was made up on the spot by Yashji, Sridevi and me.

Sridevi is a terrific actor who balances method acting (which she picked up from Kamal Haasan) with spontaneity. She has also evolved over the years. When I saw her in English Vinglish (2012), I was floored. She has flowered into a highly-intelligent actor.

I was probably one of the first people to know that Sridevi was in a relationship with Boney Kapoor. For the first time, I had an inkling of it when we were shooting a song for a film in Goa. Sridevi had left the location before me. And, I was heading back to the Taj for lunch when I saw someone who looked like Boney from afar. But I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, the general manager of the hotel, Joe, was a classmate of mine. I called him up and asked, ‘Is Boney here?’ He said, ‘Who Boney?’ I replied, ‘Boney Kapoor.’ He looked up the name on the computer and reported that he wasn’t there. It occurred to me then that he may have used an alias, so I asked Joe, ‘Has an Achal Kapoor checked in?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes.’

Achal Kapoor is Boney’s real name. And that’s when I guessed what was brewing between the two. Three or four months later, after they got married, there were whispers that she was carrying his baby. The dress man of our film revealed that all her clothes were being altered and her trousers were being loosened. The director was also told not to take shots below the waist. But for the most part, Sridevi kept her personal life away from public scrutiny, and professionally, she was wonderful to work with. She was a fabulous actor. I had two huge successes with her, Nagina and Chandni. We also did Banjaran (1991), which was an average film.”

After her marriage to Boney, Sri’s world revolved around her home. She affectionately called him, “Papa” and he addressed her with many endearments including “Jaan”. When one dropped by to meet Boney at their Juhu bungalow in a quiet by-lane, Sri was the one offering chai and biscuits. She looked happy beyond words and of course once Janhvi and Khushi came, she just slipped seamlessly into domesticity.

On her return from Dubai, Sri and Boney were committed to fly to Mauritius to attend a function where she was to be Chief Guest. And a few weeks ago, this couple was also house-hunting in South Mumbai. Perhaps, they were looking for a plush address to settle sometime later in life.

Of course, all of that is now an unrealised dream. The queen of Indian cinema has passed away, leaving behind her a void that will never be filled.

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