indian cinema heritage foundation

Sridevi and Hawa Hawai: The Story of a Great Song

12 Aug, 2020 | Short Features by Satyarth Nayak
A lobby card of Mr India from the Cinemaazi archives

All Bollywood superstars must have that one solo chartbuster that forever becomes synonymous with them. For Sridevi, it happened in Mr. India with ‘Hawa Hawai’. The song features a staple 1980s filmy situation where the heroine infiltrates the villain’s den under false pretences, but Sridevi turns this cliché into a cult. As the song explodes on-screen, the actress literally descends upon earth like a goddess in gold.

The prelude is vintage Sridevi as she starts to ad-lib nonsense such as King Jing, ping pong, Honolulu and Mombasa. You gape at her elastic face altering with every word, her gesture varying with every phrase. That Sridevi performs this gibberish with such affection again affirms that no matter what the material, she could do magic with it. But, according to Saroj Khan, what we see is just a fraction of the fun: ‘The full song has an extended prelude-a full one-minute intro music. Accordingly, I had choreographed a longer sequence where when Sri enters, there’s already a girl dancing and the boys giving her company. Sri has no idea how to join in and the boys gradually make her dance. She had done some super comedy there, but it got edited out.’

All Bollywood superstars must have that one solo chartbuster that forever becomes synonymous with them. For Sridevi, it happened in Mr. India with ‘Hawa Hawai’
That may sound like lost treasure, but the remaining chunk is tons of bullion. While Sridevi crackles with the flair of a 1980s pop-star, it is the stunts that she pulls throughout the song that make it epic. Like how her eyelid droops as she croons ‘Hawa Hawai’ or how she inadvertently smacks her fellow dancer. How she squints her eyes while singing ‘Soorat hi maine aisi payi’. It is these ‘song acting’ gems that make “Hawa Hawai’ quintessentially Sridevi. Saroj Khan reveals another trick that she and the star pulled: ‘There’s a portion before the second antara where it looks like we have shot in slow motion. In reality, Sri and the dancers are simply doing the step slowly to simulate slow motion. If you watch carefully, you can see that the people around them are moving at normal speed. Sometimes there would be no floors available for rehearsals and Sri would willingly practice in a studio corridor.’ The actress had faked a similar slow motion back in ‘Senthoora Poove’ for 16 Vayathinile and the difference shows how astonishingly she had evolved.

Great comedy requires an actor to be brave enough to mock oneself and Sridevi does it wholeheartedly. She makes a fool of herself with aplomb and that makes ‘Hawa Hawai’ unique. Interestingly, a flustered Kavita Krishnamurthy had called up Pyarelal to inform him that she had mispronounced a word in the song. The composer assured her that so rambunctious was Sridevi’s performance that her goof-up only added to the fun.

While Saroj Khan was the song’s official choreographer, a tiny Ahmed Khan had also secretly chipped in. it was during the shooting of Tina’s hospital scene that Sridevi had called ‘Ahmu’ and two other kids to another room and asked them to teach her breakdance moves. Having noticed that they were trained in that dance form, the actress had no qualms in making these youngsters her guru! Ahmed proudly recounts his first choreography stint at age ten: ‘We showed Sri Ma’am some steps and kept telling her that they are difficult to learn but she picked them up fifteen minutes. She grinned and said, “Now I will tweak it with my comedy.” That version is what you see in “Hawa Hawai”. The fact that she added her own secret sauce to every song is what makes them so unique. I was zapped that day that despite being such a huge star, she had the humility to learn from even kids like us. She’s the only actress who could dance just with her face.’
Great comedy requires an actor to be brave enough to mock oneself and Sridevi does it wholeheartedly. She makes a fool of herself with aplomb and that makes ‘Hawa Hawai’ unique. Interestingly, a flustered Kavita Krishnamurthy had called up Pyarelal to inform him that she had mispronounced a word in the song. The composer assured her that so rambunctious was Sridevi’s performance that her goof-up only added to the fun.
While Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! presented ‘Hawa Hawai’ as a symbol for mass culture, its hyper-feminine iconography soon made it a drag favourite. That gilded gown and the bright features would even turn Sridevi into an art deco icon. This gay abandon also animates her famous Charlie Chaplin sequence in the film. Hailed as the greatest ever impersonation of Chaplin on Indian celluloid, Sridevi’s mime here is a master class in comedy. Javed Akhtar, whose prediction about the actress had come true, gushes: ‘When I handed Boney the script, I had told him that only Sridevi would do justice to this role. I had seen Himmatwala and I had been astounded that something massive had happened in Hindi cinema. If you have a talent like Sridevi, you would like to take full advantage of it. Perhaps with any other actress, we may not have conceived the Chaplin sequence but here was someone we knew who could pull it off. It was only a tribute to her incredible caliber.
While Saroj Khan was the song’s official choreographer, a tiny Ahmed Khan had also secretly chipped in. it was during the shooting of Tina’s hospital scene that Sridevi had called ‘Ahmu’ and two other kids to another room and asked them to teach her breakdance moves.
And what calibre! Right from Chaplin’s wobbly walk to his fidgety cane, Sridevi absorbs every nuance of that comic wizard. She fumbles at the casino entrance and tickles the thug’s belly, dances like Chaplin and even spins like him. Shekhar Kapur takes us right inside the mechanics of a Sridevi performance: ‘It is the way she listens to you as you are directing her. Nodding her head. Never letting on whether she has understood or agreed with what you are saying. But the way her eyes are transfixed on you. As if searching deep inside you. For a meaning beyond words. Beyond language. But not much else. And then the camera runs on. And there is an electricity that permeates the set. You realize that Sri has transformed. That from deep inside you she has extracted everything she needed beyond your words. And turned the world around. Like the Charlie Chaplin scene in Mr. India. I just spoke to her about it. She merely shook her head. And looked deep into my eyes and then allowed the magic to flow and flow, while we watched in wonder and in awe.’

But if Sridevi pays homage to her childhood icon, she also inserts her own loose-limbed gags throughout these acrobatics. Watch how she hums at the roulette wheel and squeals when she wins, how she picks her ear with a dart and makes her bowler hat pop. Sridevi becomes a Chaplin body double and yet keeps flashing her own soul. It is this fusion that makes this sequence a timeless reel of joy.
Never had the industry seen a female comic actor of such magnitude, someone who could act ridiculous with such fearlessness, who was nullifying the patriarchal tenet that women aren’t funny, declaring that it was perfectly okay to make loony faces or speak in that sing-song tone.
Interestingly, the Chaplin act had initially been just a short scene on paper. However, when the makers realized what Sridevi was capable of, they stretched it into a full-blown sequence. The industry was stunned again. It had discovered another phenomenal facet of Sridevi. Never had the industry seen a female comic actor of such magnitude, someone who could act ridiculous with such fearlessness, who was nullifying the patriarchal tenet that women aren’t funny, declaring that it was perfectly okay to make loony faces or speak in that sing-song tone. For the first time perhaps, a female icon was empowering every girl out there by assuring her that it was fine to be unladylike, fine to not take yourself so seriously. Playing the buffoon with such gravitas, Sridevi had become an actress in the purest sense of the word. The India Today review gushed: ‘She carried the role effortlessly, giving it a comic disbelief reminiscent of Roger Moore as James Bond.’
As Chaplin, Sridevi reinforced her image as the heroine who could also play hero, a woman who could play a man like that girl child who had played Murugan, and the teen who had played Krishna. The plurality of her screen persona, almost embodying the Ardhanarishwara, was lapped up again by both straight and gay audience. 
Javed Akhtar explains what set Sridevi apart from others: ‘In cinema, you remember only those artistes who bring a new sensibility. Sridevi was a unique mixture of great beauty and unconventional comedy. Usually pretty actresses refrained from acting funny in films thinking that their beautiful faces will look strange on-screen. But here was a girl who was so gorgeous and yet happily contorting her face and rolling her eyes without fear, who had the courage to play the clown, who also had a sensuality that created a new idiom for Hindi film dance. That is what raised Sridevi way above other actresses.’

Vidhya Balan endorses this: ‘For me there is nothing Sridevi can’t do. It was so refreshing to see an actress do a sequence like Chaplin with such unabashed joy. It is almost as if she is not aware of her body and her being. And despite the madness on-screen, you can see that she had precisely measured out just how far to go; it is never over the top. Even if Sridevi had packed up after Mr. India and not done another film, we would have still remembered her for the next five centuries.

As Chaplin, Sridevi reinforced her image as the heroine who could also play hero, a woman who could play a man like that girl child who had played Murugan, and the teen who had played Krishna. The plurality of her screen persona, almost embodying the Ardhanarishwara, was lapped up again by both straight and gay audience. 
 


This is an excerpt from Satyarth Nayak's Sridevi: The Eternal Screen Goddess published by Peguin Random House India in 2019.





 

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About the Author

Satyarth Nayak is an Author and Screenwriter based in Mumbai. A former SAARC Award winning Correspondent with CNN-IBN, Delhi, he holds a Masters in English Literature from St. Stephen’s. Satyarth’s debut novel, The Emperor’s Riddles, released in 2014 and became a bestselling thriller earning comparisons with Dan Brown. Satyarth has also scripted Sony’s epic show Porus, touted as India’s biggest historical TV series. His latest best-selling biography Sridevi – The Eternal Screen Goddess, published by Penguin, charts the journey of this screen legend from child star to India’s First Female Superstar. Satyarth’s short stories have won the British Council award and appeared in Sudha Murthy’s curated Penguin anthology Something Happened On The Way To Heaven. Named one of the Top 50 authors to follow on social media, Satyarth is currently scripting a high-profile Web-series and has recently announced his first book on Indian Mythology to be published by Westland.