Biopics are tough to make! By design, they are period films too and that adds to the complexity of bringing them to life, literally! Right from production design to costumes to language and culture, everything must be so authentic that even a slight deviation may be considered sacrilegious by the audience. And when the biopic is of a great celebrity who was in the world until as recently as lesser than 40 years ago, the audience have an emotional bond and strong memories that must be carefully catered to. Mahanati, the biopic of yesteryears’ legendary actress, has these challenges and more! And it’s only the second film for the director!! So, what does Mahanati offer?
The life of the legendary actress Savitri is unimaginably dramatic for the uninitiated. In fact, unless one specifically tries to find, one cannot even believe that she lived for just 45 years in this world out of which she was an artiste for about 30 years! And she’s irreplaceable! It’s thus no wonder that Savitri has fans in the generations that were born well after she passed away, but little do they know about her life. Mahanati is an honest attempt to show the life of such a popular, celebrated actress who was ruling the roost for decades before succumbing to death.
Keerthy Suresh must be commended to have accepted the role in the first place. It is evident that she was approached also because she has some resembling facial features to Savitri, and that was topped with her performance that impeccably brings Savitri to life in most scenes. It’s not an overstatement to actually say that the audience may see her, in most scenes of the film, as Savitri herself and not as some actress playing her role! She is that good! Coming from an avid fan of Savitri, trust me that you’d not discount Keerthy Suresh at all despite all the respect and admiration you may have for Savitri and despite the fact that Savitri is irreplaceably unique! Her performance as an ailing Savitri makes one weep for Savitri! Her dubbing for herself was as impeccable as her portrayal for most part.
Dulquer Salman as Ramasamy “Gemini” Ganesan is very believable — very natural and very real. He played his role with all the necessary emotions in the right proportions, while taking the audience along to travel with him and empathise with him though he is sort-of “villain” in the film. (No spoilers there for anyone who knew Savitri and her life even just vaguely, which is most of the audience.) His dubbing had a few issues but given that Gemini Ganesan was not a Telugu native, the accent is quite acceptable.
Among the other cast playing as other actors that we know, Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao did an excellent, splendid job and there are other passable cameos by the actor-director Srinivas Avasarala (as the legendary director L.V. Prasad who introduced Savitri to the film industry), director Krishh (as the legendary director K.V. Reddi who made the unforgettable magnum opus “maayaabazaar”), Prakash Raj (as the producer Chakrapani of Vijaya Productions, who supported Savitri considerably beyond films too), and Naga Chaitanya (as Akkineni Nageswara Rao). Shalini Pandey is adequate as Savitri’s bosom friend Suseela who co-stars with young Savitri in stage-plays but fails to make an impression towards the fag end of the film. Vamsee Chaganti is also seen in a cameo, as G.V.G. Krishna who researched on Savitri’s life.
Samantha as Madhuravani and Vijay Devarakonda as Vijay Anthony were adequate as journalists of “Praja Vani” daily newspaper, who learn the life of the legendary actress and make it easier for the audience to understand it along with them. But for this purpose, their roles are rather insignificant but they both gave their best in order to give that break for an otherwise serious episodes of Savitri’s life. Samantha will be remembered for her well-performed climax of the film. Rajendra Prasad stands out as the uncle of Savitri who brought her up, with his comedy timing and acting prowess. Vijaya Krishna Naresh, Tanikella Bharani, Bhanupriya, Divyavani, Tulasi, Mahesh Achanta did their parts in other roles.
Supported by Shivam Rao as Production Designer, Avinash Kolla as the Art Director, Mickey J. Meyer as the Music Director, Dani Sanchez-Lopez as the Cinematographer, and veteran Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao as the Editor among others, the director Nag Ashwin could bring his dream and vision to life in Mahanati. It is not at all an easy task to condense about 40 years of life into a 3-hour film, and Siddharth Sivasamy aided him as the screenplay writer, but screenplay suffered some jumps and cuts nevertheless. Sai Madhav Burra’s dialogues are remarkably crisp and memorable at many places. The makeup is commendable too; though the prosthetic makeup on Keerthy Suresh during the pre-climax scenes make it too artificial and glossy, it must be noted that Savitri herself had such makeup in the 1970s, in order to cover up her puffy face. It is a great challenge for the director and his team to choose what to show and what not to show, directly or subtly, in such a biopic. Disappointments for a lot of audience are unavoidable in the process, particularly when important aspects of her life, her co-stars for decades (such as NTR, Jamuna, Jaggaiah) do not find any space in the film. (The reason to not portray NTR beyond one blink-and-miss scene is in a way understandable, but has possibly limited the scope of the film, particularly since NTR was her co-star nearly from the very beginning and all the way till the end of her life and career, even in films directed by him and those directed by her in the 1970s.) (I personally hoped that the popular Hindi artiste Rekha would receive a mention in the film, since the neglected daughter of Gemini Ganesan that she was, Rekha was brought up by Savitri and she loved her step-mother very much, by her own admission in the past.)
The movie is a worth a watch, and a few times for Savitri’s ardent fans (which is arguably nearly all Telugu filmgoers who enjoy films from the 1951–1970 period.) Having said that, there were a few avoidable glitches, factual errors, anachronisms, and “cinematic liberties” in the film. The film does not acknowledge that Savitri actually debuted with samsaaram in a very minor role, for instance. The film tries to show Gemini Ganesan in a considerably positive light beyond the facts, possibly to get accepted in Tamilnadu. (I wonder how the critically acclaimed 2011 documentary, Kadhal Mannan, portrayed the actor!) A few dates and films were garbled – scenes from 1957 appear before 1956; (The year was possibly shown wrong earlier and it could be 1955, going by the facts as we know them.) film chinnaari paapalu made in 1968 was mentioned to be made in 1969; subsequent Savitri’s directorial ventures such as vinta samsaaram and praaptam (Tamil) are mentioned but her role as a director is not; a scene from 1955 film kanyaaSulkam is shown to be released after the 1957 maayaabazaar, and so on. However, these issues do not cause any hiccups to the film because the whole film as an experience is heart-touching and heart-wrenching all through, thanks to all the cast and crew doing a great job there!
A lot of credit goes to Nag Ashwin and Keerthy Suresh, because this film could not have been what it is without either of them! (I cannot but wonder why Nithya Menen did not sign this film to play the lead role. I always felt that she could have done a great job, but I must insist that Keerthy Suresh never even hinted any shortcoming as I watched the film.) Keerthy Suresh had to adjust her body language and diction considerably to imitate the left-handed, weighty, natural actress that Savitri was. Nag Ashwin and his crew must be commended for giving her all the necessary resources to learn from, including interactions with Savitri’s real-life children, Vijaya Chamundeswari and Satish and with M. Sanjay Kishore, a walking encyclopaedia on Savitri.
As an audience who grew up watching movies from the 1950s to 1970s era, I must admit that this movie is something I can connect to very closely. Those among the audience expecting a lot of scenes from old movies may be disappointed because this movie is not about “Savitri as an actress” but is about “Savitri, the actress”. I have attended several commemorative events on Savitri in the 1990s too, a considerable number of which involved Sanjay Kishore (cited above) and his collection of photographs of Savitri. I have seen how Savitri is a part of my life, and I have seen how Savitri was a part of life for many others in and outside the film industry. (For example, director Vamsy who made films such as Ladies Tailor and April 1 viDudala had a greatly aesthetic sense of interior decoration in his living room, which also included a large photograph of Savitri standing in front of her car, outside her mansion, hanging on one of the walls.) Clearly, Savitri was an inspiration, in many ways, to many people! This film brings her to life, with a great lot of the emotions associated with Savitri – her acting, her love, her philanthropy, her depression, and more! While I wish there was more that the film offered, I also convinced myself that a 3-hour film can only offer so much and what it offers is complete in itself, and that any fan of Savitri would have wished the same way — to watch not just a 3-hour film but even a 30-hour film made on Savitri, and still feel the same way!
On the whole, Mahanati is something that must not be missed. If you like Savitri, watch it. If you do not, watch it to know why you must like Savitri (and then go binge-watch dEvadaasu, dongaraamuDu, missamma, kanyaaSulkam, maayaabazaar, gunDamma katha, raktasambandham, dEvata, and a whole list of films that have etched their names forever in the annals of Telugu Cinema)!
PS: All the images used are from the film’s official teasers and posters from the official FB page.