Mahanati: This New Biopic On Yesteryears Star Savithri Will Touch You

Posted: May 18, 2018

Mahanati is a realistic depiction of Savithri’s life and does not fail to enthrall the audience. This review examines what makes Mahanati tick.

After getting back home from watching the recently realised Mahanati, I looked up the videos and every possible material on the legendary actor Savithri on whom the movie was based. I even watched a black and white movie of hers for the first time since the Doordarshan days. I think that’s what a good biopic does to you. It makes you familiar with a person you never cared to know much about before and makes you want to know more.

Mahanati is a trend setter amongst Indian biopics for many reasons. It is so because this is the first time that a biopic is made on an Indian film actress with a sincere motive to tell her story and not for mere commercial reasons, like The Dirty Picture. The story is told through the lens of another woman, a journalist who accidently embarks on a mission to bring her story to the public after the actress had faded into obscurity as she fell into coma. The woman journalist, Mathuravani (neatly essayed by Samantha) is similar to most of the ‘current generation’ audience watching the movie. She knows nothing about Savithri and unlayers her little by little through her research into her past by not just exposing the important events of her life, but also the unknown facets of her personality.

While we all know that Savithri lived a tragic life, the movie makes us reflect that maybe tragedy does not merely lie in how life ends but rather how it is lived. Savithri’s childhood was not a bed of roses; she loses her father very early and is reluctantly given shelter along with her mother by her uncle, who is her father’s elder brother. She is a happy go lucky kid, full of life and vivacity. The only regret she is shown to face as a kid is not having seen her father. But, even as a kid, she does not let this regret haunt her and finds a father in a statue to whom she yaps and rants whenever she feels the need. This is the kind of person she is depicted as, not completely unaffected by life’s tragedies, but not broken by them.

The movie was honest enough in not attributing any extraordinary talents or ambition to her success. Her success was shown to be accidental – it was not the talent that led her to success, but the eventual success that uncovered her brilliance. The movie is filled with many interesting anecdotes from her life.  One of the memorable scenes is the one where she has to deliver a simple dialogue to the then ruling screen god Nageshwara Rao in her first ever acting opportunity. She fails to deliver even after many takes as she is too much in awe of him. The scene not just leaves you in splits but you cannot help falling in love with the stupid yet endearing girl, who had no idea of what she was to become in the future.

Another interesting anecdote is shown at a later point in her career where she politely challenges the director, KV Reddy that she could bring out as many tears as he wants for a particular scene, from a single eye. She does it without the use of glycerin and succeeds in doing so, generating applause from the entire set.

The centre point of the movie is the love story between Savithri and an already married Gemini Ganesan. Credit has to be given to the script writer for handling the subtle nuances of this extra marital relationship without being judgmental. Since the biopic is on Savitri, it could have been tempting to portray Gemini as the despicable manipulative player, who led to the eventual ruin of the actress, thus easily gaining the sympathy of the Indian audience. But, the movie stays true to life. Gemini is not portrayed in black or white, but in undeniable shades of grey. While he carelessly lets himself fall in love in the first half of the story, he struggles with his inferiority complex on being unable to handle the stupendous success of his wife, which seemed to surpass his own stature. He is not shown as a vile man, but as a man who was not strong enough to protect the people he loved.

Savithri’s portrayal as a woman who felt too deeply and expressed her feelings with abandon offers an interesting insight into the person behind the celebrity that she was. She did not know or understand restraints, whether it was her love for Gemini, her unhindered charitable habits, or her inability to handle grief over Gemini’s betrayal. She was one of those people, who lived her entire life in the momentary web of her feelings. While this approach to life might not be the wisest and the opposite of the practical philosophy of stoicism, this was how Savithri chose to live. While she celebrated the highs of her life with splendor, gratitude and humility, her suffering did not make her a bitter person. Even while experiencing the blows of ill health and poverty, she remained kind hearted and charitable till the end of her life, whether it is selling her silk saree to aid the marriage of her cab driver, expressing her wish to set up a rehabilitation centre for alcoholism or not carrying grudges against the financial betrayals of her relatives and employees. The movie realistically brings out what a wonderful human being she was.

The entire team of Mahanati needs to be applauded for bringing to life the unknown side of the legendary actress, who might not have lived cleverly but kindly and passionately. The credit also goes to the young team of Dutt sisters who produced a heroine oriented subject on such a mega scale and Director Naga Ashwin for his splendid directional effort in telling the story with such grandeur but sans melodrama. Last but not the least, hats off to Keerthy Suresh who breathed life into the character of Savithri with such ease and grace that it may be regarded as one of the all the time best biopic performances in Indian Cinema.

Image via movie promo stills

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Gnanapriya is a Bangalore based Banker, a passionate feminist with a keen interest in philosophy,

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