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.
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...
JUMEIRAH EMIRATES TOWERS HOTEL, DUBAI
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.