Mahanati: The Story of an Iconic Actress
Mahanati (2018), is a biopic on the life and works of Savitri who commanded high respect and adulation in the Telugu film industry for her versatile talent. A Silhouette review.
As the opening credits start to roll on a grainy black and white screen with a floral border, it takes you to the years past, into the world of vintage Telugu cinema. The scene moves to a phone ringing and a person lying on her side on a bed. A little boy runs in, answers the phone and rushes to wake up his mother lying on the bed. She does not respond.
The scene shifts to an ambulance rushing the lady to a hospital. There is no bed for her and she is left in the corridor. A man tries to tell the hospital staff that the woman who had been brought in is Savitri, but the name does not ring a bell. She is left there in the corridor, on a stretcher. A woman notices her, advances to hold her outstretched hand and calls out to her as “Savitri Amma”. This is the state of one of the greatest actresses that Telugu cinema had ever known – Savitri.
Mahanati (2018), directed by Nag Ashwin, is a biopic on the life and works of Savitri who commanded high respect and adulation in the Telugu film industry for her versatile talent. The narrative revolves around a reporter Madhuravani who is given the least impressive story to cover, to write about Savitri who has been in coma for a year. The reporter has a problem articulating her words fluently, is unable to speak what is going on in her mind at the right time and is unsure of herself. Yet, Madhuravani tries to piece together the story of the actress, encouraged by her male photographer colleague who incidentally is in love with her but is unable to voice it.
Mahanati traces Savitri’s childhood and her growing up years in her aunt and uncle’s family. Savitri learns to dance and begins to act in local plays, enjoys it and is grows up as a carefree girl. Her uncle decides to take her to Madras to act in movies. However, she does not land any role. A young man, Ramaswamy Ganesan (who later takes on the name Gemini Ganesan) takes a few pictures of her and tells her that she will be famous one day. She comes back home only to return once more to Madras and the world of Telugu films. This time she is selected for a role and thus begins her film career.
Mahanati deftly interweaves the story of Savitri’s life, with scenes of her roles on screen which are presented in black and white, while her shooting sequences are shot in colour. The scenes featuring the journalist Madhuravani are shot in a grainy, sepia tone to give a period look to 1980s. The use of these different shades adds to the appeal of the film and works wonderfully in delineating timescapes in the film. Famous scenes and characters etched by Savitri are woven into the narrative. Iconic films that are part and parcel of the psyche of the Telugu film goer – such as Maya Bazar (1957), Devadasu (1953), Misamma (1955) and Chivaraku Migiledi (1960), which is the Telugu remake of the 1959 Bengali film Deep Jwele Jaai; the wonderful classic song sequences Vivaha bhojanambu from Maya Bazar (1957) and Gorinta Poochindi Komma Lekunda from Gorintaku (1979) – are woven into the narrative. Sequences like the one where she shares funny moments with the actor Akkineni Nageswar Rao on the sets of Devadasu or when she secretly imitates S.V. Ranga Rao on the sets of Maya Bazar so that she can emulate his mannerisms to work on her performance in the song Aha naa pelli anta, bring to light moments that reveal the versatility and dedication of the actress. There are many references to actors, actresses, incidents and stories associated with Telugu films which a Telugu audience would immediately identify with.
As the underdog Madhuravani digs deeper into Savitri’s story and her rise and fall, she begins to see her not just as a star but as a real person. Apart from Madhuravani’s narration of the story, Savitri’s aunt too reveals an interesting side of Savitri’s life. Savitri comes across not just as a great performer but as a wonderful human being whose kindness and generosity touched many.
In a career spanning over thirty years, Savitri acted in more than 300 films, not just in Telugu and Tamil but in Hindi too, including Bahut Din Huwe (1954), Ghar Basake Dekho (1963), Balaram Shri Krishna (1968) and Ganga Ki Lahren (1964). In 1968, she directed Chinnari Papalu which won a Nandi Award for the best feature film. Interestingly, for this film, Savitri worked with an all women crew.
A major part of the film’s narrative deals with Savitri’s relationship with the Tamil actor, Gemini Ganesan (played by Dulquer Salman). Their love and later marriage (Ganesan was already married) and the break in their relationship as a result of Ganesan’s affairs and the result it had on Savitri’s life and career is depicted with great sensitivity in the film.
The success of his wife begins to trouble the actor who then begins to emotionally hurt her. As he turns to alcohol, she tries her best to salvage the relationship to the point of deciding to give up her career. However, when she finds him having an affair, she cuts off all relations with him and becomes an alcoholic herself. Her generosity and disregard towards managing her finances land her into bigger financial troubles. Her alcoholism leads to obesity which results in fewer roles. Woven into this narrative are the films that she did during this period and the memorable characters that she etched.
Legendary actors and directors of Telugu cinema of that time who worked with Savitri are vividly presented in cameo performances by some of Telugu cinema’s best known faces – Krish as K.V. Reddy (director, writer, producer known for his pioneering work in folklore, social and fantasy films), Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao (actor, director and producer known for his work in Telugu and Tamil cinema), Srinivas Avasarala as L.V. Prasad, Sandeep Reddy Vanga as Vedantam Raghavaiah (actor, director, producer and dancer known for his work in Telugu and Tamil cinema and theatre), and Tharun Bhascker Dhassyam as Singeetam Srinivasa Rao (director and producer), Prakash Raj as Chakrapani (producer and director), Naga Chaitanya as the Telugu actor, Akkineni Nageswar Rao to a CGI version of N.T. Rama Rao.
Mahanati works well in creating the life of Savitri with Keerti Suresh wonderfully essaying the role of the actress with an uncanny resemblance. Dulquer Salman does justice to his role as Gemini Ganesan, however, he does not look a tad bit like the actor he portrays and that is a little difficult to accept. The film refers to but does not portray Savitri’s successes in Tamil cinema.
With a running time of 2 hours 56 minutes, Mahanati is a long movie, which could have done with quite a bit of cuts particularly scenes depicting the actress’s personal life. A few of her major performances are shown as being the cause of her personal ups and downs which dampens her versatility as an actress. However, in spite of it, what emerges is a portrayal of one of the finest actresses in Indian cinema, one who could hold her place in a male-dominated industry. Commercially, the film has been doing extremely well grossing over INR 42 crore (420 million) within ten days of its release.
Indian cinema has had quite a number of actresses who have been able to carve a place for themselves. The contributions of many of them are known and acknowledged, while many passed into oblivion. Mahanati brings to light the story of one such actress whose oeuvre was varied and whose talent, dedication and versatility enabled her to become an iconic star to be remembered forever.
(Pics courtesy: Mahanati movie stills, Facebook)
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