BOL­LY­WOOD MYS­TERY: the in­trigu­ing death of In­dia’s big­gest star

The death of Bol­ly­wood’s big­gest star, Sridevi Kapoor, in a lux­ury ho­tel in Fe­bru­ary reads like a movie script, but, as Wil­liam Lan­g­ley re­ports, the truth is much more in­trigu­ing.

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As the af­ter­noon sun slipped be­hind the glitzy glass tow­ers of Dubai, Sridevi Kapoor, the long-reign­ing “Queen of Bol­ly­wood”, was get­ting ready for a sur­prise night out.

Sridevi had just re­ceived an un­ex­pected caller at her suite, 22 floors up in the Jumeirah Emi­rates Tow­ers Ho­tel, the city’s tallest, with spec­tac­u­lar views over the Per­sian Gulf. She dis­liked be­ing alone, es­pe­cially in a place like Dubai, where she knew no­body and found the hec­tic pace of life un­set­tling. But here was her hus­band, 62-year-old Boney Kapoor, a pro­lific In­dian film pro­ducer and the mas­ter­mind be­hind her en­dur­ing star­dom. Know­ing his wife would be un­happy, Boney ex­plained later, he’d se­cretly flown 2000 kilo­me­tres from the cou­ple’s Mum­bai home to be with her. The pair fell into each oth­ers arms “like teenagers,” he said, and agreed to go out for a ro­man­tic din­ner.

First, though, Sridevi needed to get ready. By all ac­counts, this was never a quick process. The Bol­ly­wood beauty-stan­dard for ac­tresses is per­fec­tion, and even at 54 with

300 films to her name, Sridevi took an un­spar­ing ap­proach to look­ing her best.

While she was busy in the bath­room, Boney poured him­self a drink and set­tled down to watch an In­dia-v-South Africa cricket match on the tele­vi­sion. He says he isn’t sure how long it was be­fore he called to her. There was no an­swer. The door was locked. He tried to force the han­dle, and even­tu­ally kicked it open. Sridevi was ly­ing dead in the bath­tub.

When the news broke it sent a shock­wave of grief and dis­be­lief rolling across the sub­con­ti­nent where, for more than 30 years, Sridevi, the daugh­ter of a small-town lawyer, had been the movie busi­ness’s big­gest fe­male star. “The whole of In­dia just came to a stand­still,” says au­thor and screen­writer Harneet Singh, who has chron­i­cled Sridevi’s ca­reer. “Peo­ple couldn’t work. They couldn’t think. They didn’t know what to say. For many of us who grew up with her, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine life with­out Sridevi.”

Politi­cians, dig­ni­taries and fel­low film stars paid lav­ish trib­ute.

Tele­vi­sion chan­nels cleared their schedules, cine­mas across the coun­try went dark. “I am shocked to hear of the pass­ing of Sridevi,” said In­dia’s pres­i­dent, Ram Nath Kovind. “She has left mil­lions of fans heart­bro­ken, and her per­for­mances will re­main an in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers.”

Then the ques­tions started. For all her fame, Sridevi was an enigma to her fans – her in­ner-self con­cealed be­hind the mask of glam­our and the glossy pack­ag­ing of her pro­fes­sional life. Off-screen, say those who knew her, she was very dif­fer­ent. “She had built a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal wall around her­self,” says film­maker Ram Varma, who directed the star in sev­eral movies. “She had to put on the make-up and be some­one else, not just for the cam­era, but as a way of hid­ing her­self. The only time I re­ally saw her at peace was when she was work­ing, be­cause then she could es­cape into her fan­tasy world.”

A med­i­cal re­port by the Dubai au­thor­i­ties stated that Sridevi had died of coro­nary fail­ure. This raised eye­brows, not only for the re­mark­able speed with which the mat­ter ap­peared to have been set­tled, but be­cause Sridevi, with no his­tory of health prob­lems and a rep­u­ta­tion for keep­ing her­self fit, seemed an un­likely can­di­date for a heart at­tack.

Bizarrely, the fol­low­ing day, Fe­bru­ary 26, a new bul­letin was re­leased, this time amend­ing the cause of death to “ac­ci­den­tal drown­ing”. Ac­cord­ing to the Gulf News, Dubai’s main English lan­guage news­pa­per, sources at the Rashid Hos­pi­tal dis­closed to one of its re­porters that a sig­nif­i­cant amount of al­co­hol had been found in the ac­tress’s blood, and the off-the-record guid­ance – given as Sridevi’s body was re­leased to her fam­ily with­out more ado – was that she had overindulged, passed out in a hot bath and drowned.

To a bil­lion in­con­solable Bol­ly­wood fans this ex­pla­na­tion sounded even less plau­si­ble. Sridevi was known to be vir­tu­ally tee­to­tal, and why in any case would the star, given her self­dis­ci­plined na­ture, drink ex­ces­sively be­fore head­ing out for an in­ti­mate din­ner à deux with her hus­band?

The mood back in In­dia be­gan to shift from grief to doubt to fever­ish spec­u­la­tion. One of the coun­try’s lead­ing politi­cians, Subra­ma­nian Swamy, de­nounced the Dubai au­thor­i­ties’ han­dling of the case, declar­ing: “The facts, as we’ve been given them, make no sense. She never drank liquor, so how did it get into her body? Why has there been no proper in­ves­ti­ga­tion? My opin­ion, if you want it, is that she was mur­dered.”

Why, though, would any­one want the beloved “Meryl Streep of In­dia” dead?

Sridevi’s un­likely road to su­per­star­dom be­gan in Si­vakasi, a hot, dusty south­ern town bet­ter known for pro­duc­ing fire­works than film stars. In her mem­oirs, she writes: “I was a very shy and lonely child. There were just

the two of us. My sis­ter, Latha, and I. Even though my par­ents were de­voted to me, I was lonely. I hated crowds and peo­ple. The minute I saw more than three or four peo­ple in a room I’d run and hide be­hind my mother’s sari.”

At just four she was ta­lent-spot­ted and given a role in a film called Thu­naivan as a child god. More parts fol­lowed and by the age of

10 she was al­ready an es­tab­lished name. By late ado­les­cence she had blos­somed not only into an au­then­tic beauty, but a per­former with real depth and a range of tal­ents that in­cluded singing, danc­ing and com­edy.

“Her pop­u­lar­ity had to be seen to be be­lieved,” says Ram. “We were once shoot­ing in a town, and when the word got around that Sridevi was there the whole place came to a com­plete stand­still. Banks, govern­ment of­fices, schools, col­leges – ev­ery­thing closed as ev­ery­one wanted to see Sridevi. The whole coun­try was un­der her spell.”

In­clud­ing Boney, the bright­est light in an il­lus­tri­ous show­busi­ness dy­nasty. He had wor­shipped Sridevi for years, and in 1987 signed her to star in Mr In­dia,a film that would be­come one of Bol­ly­wood’s big­gest block­busters. By the time it was fin­ished, Boney was hope­lessly in love.

Un­for­tu­nately, he was also mar­ried. For all its gaudi­ness, Bol­ly­wood main­tains a ve­neer of con­ser­va­tive moral­ity. Boney’s de­ci­sion to leave his wife, Mona, and their two chil­dren for Sridevi be­came a na­tion­wide scan­dal and se­ri­ously dented the ac­tress’s clean-cut im­age. Par­tic­u­larly when it emerged that she had been stay­ing as a guest at the Kapoors’ mar­i­tal home when her af­fair with Boney be­gan.

The cou­ple sur­vived the fall-out and mar­ried in 1996, but when

Sridevi an­nounced she was tak­ing a break from films to start a fam­ily, few ex­pected to see her back.

Two daugh­ters fol­lowed, and the Kapoors’ mar­riage ap­peared out­wardly se­cure, but there were oc­ca­sional re­ports of ten­sions and un­hap­pi­ness. In pub­lic, Sridevi of­ten seemed de­tached and un­set­tled. She rarely gave in­ter­views and, ac­cord­ing to Bol­ly­wood in­sid­ers, felt her lack of ed­u­ca­tion – she had al­most no for­mal school­ing and spoke only ba­sic English – left her adrift in the fash­ion­able, An­glo­phone so­ci­ety of In­dia’s mod­ern elite.

Iron­i­cally, her re­turn to the screen six years ago came in a film called English Vinglish about an in­se­cure house­wife who sells home­made cakes to pay for English lessons. It was a huge hit, and led to Sridevi be­ing dis­cov­ered by a new gen­er­a­tion of cin­ema­go­ers.

On Fe­bru­ary 18, the ac­tress flew to Dubai with Boney and their youngest daugh­ter, Khushi, 17, for a fam­ily wed­ding. Pic­tures posted on so­cial me­dia show her in full diva mode, wrapped in a spec­tac­u­lar white sari-style dress trimmed with gold thread. On the 21st, Boney and Khushi re­turned, leav­ing Sridevi be­hind for rea­sons that are not en­tirely clear.

Three days later, af­ter at­tend­ing busi­ness meet­ings, Boney flew back, ar­riv­ing unan­nounced at Sridevi’s ho­tel around 6.20pm. The de­tails of what hap­pened next are con­tested, with Boney say­ing he en­tered the bath­room around 8pm and found his wife im­mersed in the tub. Sources at the ho­tel, how­ever, have put the time con­sid­er­ably later, and say it was their staff who forced the door.

The Dubai po­lice say the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was “sat­is­fac­to­rily com­pleted” and found no rea­sons to de­lay the re­turn of Sridevi’s body to In­dia.

It trav­elled aboard a pri­vate jet to a coun­try strug­gling to cope with the shock. Tens of thou­sands lined the streets of Mum­bai as the ac­tress’s glass cas­ket, be­decked with flower gar­lands, and cov­ered with an In­dian flag, made its way to a cre­ma­to­rium.

“I paid my last re­spects to Sridevi,” wrote friend and fel­low Bol­ly­wood star Hema Malini af­ter the ser­vice. “The en­tire in­dus­try was there, griev­ing, some on the verge of break­down. Such was her aura and magic in films. She lay there, beau­ti­ful in a red sari, serene in death and to­tally at peace.”

Yet be­neath the trib­utes and cour­te­sies lies the sense the full story of Sridevi’s death has not been told, and un­til it is her peace may be frag­ile.

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT: Sridevi was re­garded as In­dia’s first fe­male su­per­star; thou­sands in Mum­bai watched Sridevi’s fu­neral cortège pass on Fe­bru­ary 28; Sridevi and Boney with daugh­ters Khushi and Jhanvi; Sridevi starred in 300 films; greet­ing fans at...


Sri­davi and hus­band Boney Kapoor in Oc­to­ber 2017. Just what hap­pened in the lux­ury ho­tel on the night she died is un­clear, with Boney and the ho­tel giv­ing dif­fer­ent ac­counts about who dis­cov­ered her lifeless body, and when.

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