I am an ardent Rajinikanth fan.
But, as I grew up to understand the gender politics of cinema, I realised that our celebration of these heroes is lesser to do with their stardom and more about masculinities. Our real-life imagery of these stars is tinted with the spillover of this ‘heroism’ from their films. They become our messiahs, our crusaders for justice. And so, it comes as no surprise that Tamil Nadu has had a slew of male actors turned politicians right from MGR (in whose shadow Jayalalithaa ascended into politics) to Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan. These people want to capitalize on their ‘hero’ image.
Which is why, when social media was abuzz with the impending release of “Mahanati” (pronounced Mahaa-nut-ee, meaning great actress), a Telugu biopic on the legendary actress Savitri, I was excited, and yet, had my own reservations about this movie. This obviously was quite a risky subject for director Nag Ashwin to pick as his second film, right after his debut, a brilliantly made “Yevade Subramanyam”. And to be honest, I, like many people of my generation, have had only a minimal glimpse of her as an actress – she peaked as a star during the 50s and 60s, and passed away way back in 1981. The only movies in her rich repertoire that I have managed to watch were her superb performances in the unparalleled mythological fantasy “Mayabazar” (1957), and “Mooga Manasulu” (1963), a reincarnation saga.
Also, when I learnt that Keerthy Suresh was essaying the legend’s role, I was a little apprehensive, considering the fact that her earlier movies were never really memorable, and did not extract her acting capabilities. Nonetheless, after watching the teaser, my interest was piqued. My parents would always praise Savitri as a brilliant artist who could communicate and emote even the most subtle emotions effortlessly. And then, there were always these discussions about her tumultuous personal life – her secret wedding with the already married Gemini Ganesan, her rise to dizzying heights of stardom, and her plunge into penury because of a tempestuous marriage and financial cheating by her close aides. Even till date, one discusses her miserable alcoholism and death after 19 months of a diabetes-induced coma. Her life story was the stuff that tragedies are made of. Everyone knew that even this movie, being a biopic, would have to end with her downfall and death. The denouement was obvious. The linearity of her descent is discernable.
But still, there was something about this movie that attracted me, and its audio launch stood out for me for many reasons. Assembled at the function were male descendants of legendary actors – repeatedly being referred to as ‘heirs’ – who had obviously used their heavy surnames/caste to make a mark for themselves as heroes in movies. It is an open fact that nepotism is rampant in the Telugu film industry. But here, I watched these ‘heirs’ showering praises on Savitri gaaru’s craft rather than harping about her beauty. Having watched audio launches of many movies earlier where, in the dearth of meaty roles for women, female actresses are praised only for their beauty, while male ‘heirs’ are hailed for all the effort that they have put into the film, the speeches at this audio launch were music to my ears. It also served as a reminder about an era in Telugu cinema where art took precedence. All of that came back when the makers and guests praised the efforts that the leading lady of the biopic, Keerthy Suresh had put into bringing the legendary actor back to life on screen.
And yet, when I watched the movie, I got to know that Savitri had soared to the greatest of heights as an actor and star in her own right. This movie had to tread the tough path of balancing the factual realities of her professional life, along with the severely contested ones about her personal life. She was a headstrong woman who sought to disprove anyone who told her that she couldn’t do something, and she stood shoulder to shoulder with the topmost male actors of her time – NT Ramarao and A Nageshwar Rao. And that she artistically challenged every artist she worked with, because they had to work to keep up with the immense talent and skill she brought before the camera. All of these were intertwined into the narrative, set in 1981, with the backdrop of two journalists probing into her story when she is in a coma. Her personal life – the whirlwind love affair with Gemini Ganesan, her palatial house and royal lifestyle, replete with goldsmiths at her disposal, and penchant for cars and racing, and her eventual downfall – were all shown with the right proportions of drama and fiction. The roles of the young journalists Madhuravani (Samantha Akkineni) and Vijay Antony (Vijay Deverakonda), and their pursuit of her story in the film are symbolic of why the younger generation must know and learn about her life.
Along with these nuances, subtle feminist messages – like the one where Madhuravani, while reflecting on the rift between a more successful Savitri and her husband Gemini Ganesan (whose jealously manifests because of his dwindling career) rants to Vijay Antony about why men have a problem when their wives are more successful than them – establish a conversation with the audience. In that sense, “Mahanati” becomes a reflexive viewing experience. We are not merely watching the factual story of a legendary actress unfold – we are being told to think about her talent and motivation that propelled her to success and the gender politics of how society always wants to exploit financially independent women who become the archetypical ‘golden goose’.
We understand that Savitri was financially exploited by her close aides, her altruism and largesse were taken advantage of, and her drinking habit (it is Gemini Ganesan who introduces her to liquor), eventually taking a toll on her health. Amidst this interplay of facts and drama, there is not one moment where we feel sermonized, and the movie does not shove messages down our throat with philosophical musings about life, or the right way to live. “Mahanati” Savitri’s life was an open book. Nag Ashwin does not attempt to change that. Which is why I noticed that the vast cross-section of audiences in the theatre, walked out with different emotions – some were in tears, some were happy and proud, while others remained dumbstruck. “Mahanati” only revokes the personal connection that the audience had with her as her fans, sympathizers, or admirers, and does not attempt to iron out factual creases.
And this is exactly what makes “Mahanati” an evergreen classic. There were so many ways in which this movie could have gone wrong. It could have been the cathartic antidote to cinema’s obsession with masculinity and glorified Savitri’s femininity, womanhood, or motherhood for that matter, because she never stopped acting after marriage or motherhood. But Nag Ashwin steers clear of these problematic representations. We see Savitri, by then a skilled driver and automobile enthusiast, challenged by a man about how she cannot race in such an advanced car. She accepts the challenge, and we get a glimpse of her pressing on the accelerator with her feet clad with toe rings (a sign of being married), and emerging victorious in the race with élan.
Even when Madhuravani is making important decisions, we see her mother and maternal grandmother always supporting her, or just present in the background, standing behind her not physically, but also symbolically as she eventually begins to stand up for herself. In another scene, a loyal servant reads out to Savitri about critics dissing her for her weight gain. She is shown sitting casually with a plate of laddoos on her lap, and munching on them nonchalantly. During her peak, she is shown beating up a man who is asking aspiring actresses for favours outside a studio. She directs a film with an all-women crew. The beauty is in these details, and for the audience to make whatever they want of it.
For this kind of movie, that must pique the interest of the younger generation while rekindling the older generation’s nostalgia, it was necessary that the technical crew delivered- and they did so beautifully. The cinematography, music, sets, and costume are pitch perfect. And, what can one write about the lead actor, Keerthy Suresh? She had to reconcile imitating Savitri’s classic songs and scenes, with bringing in the legend’s persona, and yet shine as an actor herself. It would have been so easy to be gimmicky. Yet, Keerthy’s success as an actor in this movie lies in bringing in the traces of her own craft and qualitative internalization of the role. She deserves every bit of the praise for carrying the entire movie on her able shoulders, which would have otherwise fallen flat.
It took me two times of watching “Mahanati” to absorb its cinematic brilliance. And even though it has been a while since I watched it for the second time, I want to watch it again. I want the fascination of seeing a woman being celebrated on screen for her professional life, and the way she carried herself in real life through her trials and tribulations. I want to watch “Mahanati” again because it is not a celebration of perfection, but a celebration of living with the consequences of what is defined as mistakes. It is a celebration not of what is established as right and wrong, but standing up for what one believes in – which makes it relevant for every epoch. Every time I walk past my alma mater on Habibullah Road, it feels surreal, knowing that day after day, I walked into a school that was in such close proximity to this legend’s residence. I had goosebumps when the title Mahanati appeared on screen with an imposing background score, and at that moment, I felt fulfilled. It is no more only a Rajinikanth film, but even that of an actress that can stir me in the same way, if not more.