Mahanati – A biopic of a Legend, that thrives on the filmmaker’s creativity.
It is only apt that the makers decided to name the film, Mahanati (A great actress), as opposed to naming it after the woman, whose biopic it is, Savitri, for she can drop just the right number of tears from just one of the eyes, when asked to, by the director who stands spellbound, prophesying that her name will be etched as the greatest actress, there ever will be.
The film, Mahanati completes a total arc of the story, from Savitri’s childhood to the unprecedented fame during the 50s and 60s and the downfall later. Director, Nag Ashwin makes sure that the film is not a reverential ode to the great actress’s life by starting Mahanati on a sorrowful note. Another masterstroke by the director/writer Nag Ashwin, is to build Mahanati film around two other characters that are not directly involved in Savitri’s life. Samantha plays Vani, a young aspirational journalist who chances upon Savitri’s story, who is now laying on the deathbed. Vijay Devarakonda (Arjun Reddy) plays a photographer who is a colleague of Vani. As the two are standing outside Savitri’s residence, they see an old man, reluctantly walking in and then walking out of the gate, leaving the flowers he had got. Vijay points at the old man and says to Samantha, “There is our story. “ When they follow the old man and ask him if he knew Savitri, he says “No, I know Savitri Amma. “ (Amma is usually a respectful way of addressing a woman). This is the moment where an audience who is unaware of the legend of Savitri realizes the level of magnificence we are dealing with.
The period where we see Samantha and Vijay is mid 1980s and the art department, cinematographer and the director make sure that they completely suck you in with profound authenticity. The idea of creating a grainy look to the portions in 80s is appreciable, but you can’t help feeling that it was a tad overdone. The aesthetic victory alone sets this film apart from other Telugu cinema we have seen. In a film that is about Savitri, it is the character that Samantha plays, Vani that is the most endearing. Samantha displays ease in a role that is tailor-made for her. Vani is a forward thinking woman, an aspiring writer. It is a delight to watch her discussing, animatedly, about her writing prowess, with a completely deaf woman in a public bus.
Coming to the Mahanati herself, Savitri Amma is played by Keerthi Suresh, an actress I never took seriously, given the kind of films she was a part of; little did I know that there was something of this magnitude, brewing while she was making films that didn’t amount to anything. I was never aware of the ‘personality ‘of Savitri gaaru, all I had known is a few classics she was a part of and her magnificent beauty. The film, introduces to you the personality behind the Mahanati we all knew. The journey we take with her, introduces to us the duality she had as a character and how unassuming this tremendous actor was, otherwise. She is innocent but mature. The director never falters while handling this duality, he never reduces innocence to childishness and never underlines the maturity. Kudos to Keerthi Suresh for internalizing this humongous personality and delivering a faultless performance. It is a bonus that her facial features match that of Savitri’s, so much so, that when the director ( Nag Ashwin ) cuts to a film sequence that Savithri ( Keerthi Suresh ) is acting in, invariably, one sees Savithri Amma’s face flash by, it is magical !
This story is not just about Savitri, we see how the fame and love that is garnered on her and how the despair and sorrow she goes through, affects people around her. Nag Ashwin does a commendable job in handling the other characters in Mahanati, each one is a well written role, especially that of Vani (Samantha). Surprisingly, the characters are progressive, for the times they live in. We see people getting married twice, a young woman aspiring to become a writer, and a wife accepting her husband’s marriage with another woman. It is refreshing to see a Telugu film with such heft and all the heft is brought in by the depth of the characters that are a part of this story.
Nag Ashwin, the director is on the verge of mastering his craft. He sets up his characters in frames that speak out to you, when the characters don’t; he and his cameraman make sure that every frame is a meticulously crafted reflection of the character’s mind. The scene, in which, Gemini Ganesan, played by the incredible, Dulquer Salman, opens his heart out to Savitri about his love towards her and confesses that he is already married, the outpour of love and the anxiety in the confession is set against the roaring waters of the sea. Alcoholism is the most talked-about aspect of Savitri’s downfall and the way Nag handles it in the film is nothing short of brilliant. The scene in which Savitri first tastes alcohol is filled with anger, grief and guilt, but it never transpires into melodrama and is handled with great panache and minimalism.
The parts where we see Savitri shooting for the unforgettable songs, we see how they, kind of reflect the state of her personal life at that moment, for example, the eternal classic, Neevu leka Veena mrogalenannadi (The Veena would not sing, without you around) was shot at a point in her life when frailty started to creep into her marriage with Gemini Ganesan as he leaves her, succumbing to his ego; it could be looked at as coincidence and also as a suggestion that she left a slice of her life in every role she played, immortalizing the character. The film, Mahanati also shows that life is not always an immaculate mirror and it is not long, before it becomes a broken symbol of one’s life, marred with sorrow and regret. Nothing exemplifies this better than the scene where Savitri cannot look at her face in a mirror and breaks it in anger, we cut to a bird’s eye view of the room she is in and see her in a corner, sobbing in a room decorated with all the splendid luxuries possible. This juxtaposition of splendour and sorrow in the frame, speaks to us about the hollowness of fame.
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As the post credits rolled and there were bits of Savitri Amma and the bits from the film played on either sides of the screen, I wished I were born in the 50s to witness this Mahanati on the Silver Screen. This film is a cinematic catharsis of epic proportions, never overly dramatic or painfully subtle, this is a story told with panache and love. Yes, Panache is the word to describe a film made on Savitri. Long live the Legend.