This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Durga Punyamurthula. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

The High Of Watching “Mahanati”, A Telugu Biopic On Legendary Actress Savitri

More from Durga Punyamurthula

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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Venkateswara Rao Peri

    The movie good and it is well presented.But as for the language we all know that Savithri is born and brought up in proper Telugu speaking place.When Keerthi Suresh or for that matter Samantha dubbed it may an experiment to use the artists themselves but in many places the pronunciation was not proper.The director could have taken care about it.

  2. Eshwar Rao

    Very well written. Looking forward to more from you especially on topics like the Environment and Global politics.

More from Durga Punyamurthula

Similar Posts

By Akanksha kapil

By Hrishikesh Sharma

By Abhishek Sharma

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below