Friday 18 May 2018

Mahanati: The important tale of Savitri — superstar and woman

The actor takes her own sweet time to absorb Savitri, initially looking out-of-sorts with her forced enthusiasm and later stunningly dissolving into the psyche of the superstar, writes Neelima Menon in Full Picture. Read on: 

Savitri sways into the frame draped in rich kancheevarams and a beauteous smile. She calmly accepts the director’s challenge to perform a scene where she must shed exactly two drops of tears from one eye. Once done to perfection, the director acknowledges her feat with humility. It’s a craftily designed scene ushering in the first lady superstar of Indian cinema. In a way it underlines the colourful folklore surrounding Savitri—a superstar of south Indian cinema of the 1950s and 60s. Her unquestionable aura, talent and generosity. Mahanati (titled Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil) directed by Nag Ashwin is an important film, more so as it chronicles the life and times of a heroine, a female superstar, in an industry seeped in patriarchy. And it’s a story, despite being a perceptibly filtered version, that needs to be told.

The film is set in the early 80s where a rookie reporter, Madhuravani (Samantha) is assigned the task of writing a story on Savitri, who is on her deathbed. The film goes back and forth to narrate her story through the people close to her, parallelly infusing a love track between Vani and her colleague.

Savitri, right from childhood, is shown as an irrepressible child with a talent for theatre and dance and drawing people towards her like a magnet. The narrative, while archiving her metaphoric rise to stardom, focusses more on her personal journey. Her marriage to the much-married Gemini Ganesan, her ensuing star value, addiction to alcohol, and her eventual bankruptcy.

We aren’t quite fed on her jaunts on the sets (there is a brief verbal pow-wow with her first director), or how she clawed her way into the existential patriarchal system (set in the 40s and 50s), or how she broke the rules, got equal billing with the heroes and had films written for her. That part is often finished in a dialogue or a song. There are no mentions about a rivalry either. It somehow looks so easy and equally hard to buy.

There is enough focus on her romance with Gemini Ganesan and that arc is nicely done, riddled in moral complexity. Gemini Ganesan’s characterisation is as intricate as Savitri’s and Dulquer Salmaan brings all that to the fore with a measured intensity. His simmering infatuation for Savitri later explodes into a love that questions the moral fabric of the society. His relationship with his first wife isn’t explored, neither his affair with Pushpa Valli. The writing is interesting in those scenes depicting his ego battles with Savitri’s stardom and their oddly intense love affair.

There are pages from her life that make us think she was also a feminist, a stubborn fighter who refused to be beaten. True, she reluctantly agrees to act post marriage, but she achieves better success soon after, refusing to let her corroding relationship with Ganesan affect her career. Her passion for car racing, her ability to withstand any crisis, her unbridled generosity and kindness that helped her reach an almost divine status…and her lifelong sorrow of not meeting her father. It’s during these multifaceted scenes that Keerthy Suresh really takes charge. The actor takes her own sweet time to absorb Savitri, initially looking out-of-sorts with her forced enthusiasm and later stunningly dissolving into the psyche of the superstar. That passage where she breaks down upon witnessing Ganesan’s betrayal was a beauty. And she was perfect every time she did a take-off of Savitri on camera in those meta scenes. 

What seemed out of place was the corresponding romance between Madhuravani (Samantha, who keeps repeating herself in every film) and Vijay Anthony (Vijay Devarakonda). Except for stretching the running time, it served no purpose; especially superficial were the scenes at the church and her supposed empowerment. 

Dani Sanchez-Lopez arrestingly captures the 40s and 50s, the black and white tones (the on camera and off camera transition was superb), and equally brilliantly textures the 80s. The songs too complement that time, evoking nostalgia melodically (Niazhavendi Nindre being my top pick).

True, the hat-tip to the legends of the time had apt actors (Nagachaithanya as Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, Mohan Babu as SV Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as Aluri Chakrapani) but I wish the director had explored more into the dynamics between them and Savitri than put them up as glorified props.

In the end Mahanati, a biopic about an iconic actress also speaks about the deep-seated patriarchy that still hung as a Damocles sword over the unequal power play in a husband-wife relationship, about the deeply flawed institution called marriage (there is a scene when the same crowd who boos Savitri claps when Ganesan calls her Mrs. Savitri Ganesan), about the thin boundaries between love and morality and how actresses always had a shelf-life. That way Mahanati is also a powerful social commentary. 

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