Long before JK Rowling made the cult of the snake famous in the Western world through the House of Slytherin in Harry Potter, I was obsessed with naags and naagins. That there was local lore about ambitious snake couples that transformed into humans thrilled me no end. Truthfully most of the stories of ichhadhaari naags and naagins (now isn’t that a great throwback phrase?) came to me, as they did to so many of us, through Bollywood movies. Though they are now out of vogue, Nagin movies were Big Business in the 80s and early 90s, and frankly deserve to be studied academically as an aesthetic movement in time.
Recall the jewelery: the sinuous bracelets of gold snakes winding around an arm, or the tiaras of cobra heads staring defiantly from atop the blue contact lenses of their mistress. There was a freedom and sexual emancipation of sorts to the character of the naagin: she was in control, strong in her agency. At first glance she looked like any dancing girl or courtesan figure from Bollywood historical epics, but no — this was a woman with superpowers and she was Everything. Her dancing was unlike anything else in Bollywood movies. The raised-arm miming a snake-warning, or the defiant flaring of the eyes, these were all gestures of power and self-possession. Even brought to her feet and writhing about because of that phallic flute the snake charmers used against her (the imagery of these movies is gloriously replete with subtext), she maintained her magic. A South Asian woman as a naagin was never subjugated, even as she slithered helplessly on the floor. No, she was just getting ready to whoop some ass.
A South Asian woman as a naagin was never subjugated, even as she slithered helplessly on the floor
And with Naags, though they often died earlier in the movie to make way for the human hero, there was a wonderful sense of the unselfconscious. The gestures couldn’t be overtly masculine, and so they didn’t try, and that kind of sublimated protest against performed masculinity is only one of the many, many hallmarks of these wonderful movies.
The figure of the Naagin – a curiously emotional creature who often begins by seeking out revenge but then falls in love with a human – is a magical one that has echoes in fairy tales all around the world, from the little mermaid to the sirens and fairies.
But of all of them, no one embodied the delicate balance of vulnerability and power better than Sridevi. I was devastated to hear that she died last week. Dev-as-tated. It seemed so sudden, so wrong, and it stirred in me all sorts of memories long since forgotten. She was the ultimate Naagin. The flash of her contacts, the bling of her outfits, the backcombing of her bouffant, these are things that should be committed to everyone’s memory.
It was with this bubbling, white-hot enthusiasm that I insisted my white friends abroad all see Nagina – her most famous film as a snake. We saw it together, but the glory of it seemed to be lost on them because since they had to read it in subtitles (never a great way to enjoy a vengeful snake lady), they got caught up in the kitsch of the sets and costumery.
I finally gave up when one of them pronounced ‘Nagina’ like ‘Nagina.’
But Naagins were not the only spell Sridevi cast on me. One of the other movies I grew up on was the gloriously camp, terribly underrated and deep fabulous Jaanbaaz. This movie has everything. It has Dimple in cowboy boots, it had Rekha singing Nazia Hassan songs dressed like she was ready to hit a workout video in the 80s, it has Anil Kapoor looking in desperate need of cologne, it has Feroz Khan playing 100 years younger than he could and doing it while pretending to own a stud farm, it has a black woman singing an English version of Rekha’s song but this time with a Tarzan and Jane theme. But above all it had Sridevi as a drug-addicted flailing goddess. The role was perfect for her special brand of acting, that steady stream of whimpering moans and high-pitched groans that became the hallmark of her acting style. She takes a whole iconic song to die of a heroin overdose that someone has injected her with to murder her, all the time her paloo flies in the wind against trippy cloud graphics as if trying to cling onto the last vestiges of a life filled with unrequited love. Honestly, it wasn’t until I saw that movie as an adult that I realised how dark that scene was, and that she was actually O-D-ing; I just though she really liked clouds.
So it is with true sadness that I pay this small homage to a Devi whose life and work had more of an effect on the way I see the world than most will ever know. Thank you Sridevi, on behalf of all your devotees, for making our lives a little more magical. Thank you.
Write to email@example.com