Mahanati movie review: Savitri's life is laid down with authenticity, but lacks drama that it inherently demands
Despite all the dramatic moments in the lives of Savitri and Gemini Ganesan, Mahanati lacks the drama that a biopic of this scale deserves
Truth is often sad, heart breaking and inspiring. And at times, it is also boring because it does not leave anything to your imagination. The ambiguous nature of truth might turn out to be a bane, especially when you do not understand or explain the subtext, or when you do not quite explore the simmering tension between people which wreck their lives.
Nag Ashwin’s latest film Mahanati, a biopic on Savitri, too sets out to find the truth about the legendary actress’ life, but what we get in the end is a film that is dense in its storytelling, but also leaves you craving for more drama. In an attempt to explore the persona behind the moniker ‘Mahanati’, the film merely reiterates the legend which has been passed on for generations altogether, without adding anything to make for a rousing cinematic experience.
The story is narrated from Madhuravani’s (Samantha) point of view. She is a journalist struggling to find her place in a male-dominated newsroom and her constant stammering problem does not make her the numero uno choice to report big stories either. One day, she is asked to write a piece on Savitri’s life when the latter slips into coma in the late ‘70s. And slowly, she begins to understand the greatness of Savitri, both her real and reel life personality, and in the process, she finds the courage to become a stronger woman.
Beyond what it says about the life of an iconic actress, the masterstroke of Mahanati lies in juxtaposing Madhuravani’s life and Savitri’s volatile life. The more Madhuravani gets to know about Savitri, the more empathetic she gets and her zeal to find the truth becomes stronger. In the end, we realise that the baton has been passed from one strong woman to another. This delicate balance in storytelling adds a wonderful layer to what Nag Ashwin wants to say. That Savitri’s life is an inspiration and there is a lot one can learn from her.
Savitri was undeniably one of the greatest actresses ever in Indian cinema, but there is so much more to her. She was kind, sympathetic towards others, blindly trusted people close to her, and was a caring wife and mother. She was also rebellious in her own ways, but fate had the last laugh. Yet, even in her last days when she lost everything, she still went out her way to take care of others even if she did not know them personally. Over the years, we might have heard about various incidents that happened in Savitri’s life, and Nag Ashwin carefully strings them together to give a complete picture. And here lies the problem with Mahanati. It does not quite dig deep into the dramatic moments that are aplenty in Savitri’s life but gives us a fleeting glance of her rise and fall over the course of four decades. It is like reading a Wikipedia page of a famous person. You might get all that you are looking for but it is not the same as reading an in-depth book about the same person.
It is no secret that Savitri’s life, especially in the '70s, was riddled with alcoholism, which ruined her career altogether. The film draws our attention to the marital discord between Savitri and Gemini Ganesan, and the gap between them keeps getting wider because of jealousy. While Savitri’s life turns into a tragedy, which has been well-documented already, we hardly get to know Ganesan’s version of the whole turn of events which could have added another layer into this story. Think about it. He is already married to Alamelu when he first meets Savitri; and Alamelu silently accepts Ganesan’s decision to marry Savitri, going by what is shown in the film. Ganesan cannot stand that his wife has become more famous than he ever was. He takes to alcohol to get over it. Yet, he is hardly seen in this version when Savitri goes down the rabbit hole. Although there is a scene each to show the sequence of events between the two characters, the film does not go anywhere beyond that to explore the simmering tension between Savitri and Gemini Ganesan. We do not know if he repents for what he has done to Savitri or if he ever redeems himself. He is easily the most complex character in the story because it is his choices that triggers a storm in Savitri’s life but then, Mahanati just focuses on Savitri’s journey.
There are a bunch of montage sequences, including Savitri’s rise to fame post Mayabazar and her fall in the latter part of her career, which give a glimpse of what she meant to the people around her. And whenever the film focuses on Savitri’s films, it cuts to black & white frames, which help to revive our memories. There is no dearth of cameos in the film, right from Krish as KV Reddy to Mohan Babu as SV Ranga Rao, all of whom are used as catalysts to establish Savitri’s greatness. Mahanati has a bit of everything, but then it also makes this writer wonder if it is good enough to be an inspiring story.
Among the actors, it is Keerthy Suresh who impresses the most and quite rightfully so. Not that anyone can match up to Savitri, but Keerthy brings a lot of honesty to the portrayal of an iconic actress and that is what stands out in the film. Dulquer is terrific as Ganesan, and it is his charm and flamboyance that pours life into the narrative throughout the first half. The moment he goes missing from the narrative, the film too misses its most complex character. Samantha does a top-notch job as a journalist who is in search of the real story behind Savitri’s life, and her love story with Vijay Devarakonda is well written.
The film delves into every aspect of Savitri’s life, right from her early life near Vijayawada to her initial career in Madras, and Nag Ashwin expects us to soak into every detail of the storytelling. It has a huge impact on the pacing of the story. However, there is hardly anything to complain, at least initially, thanks to stunning cinematography by Dani Sanchez-Lopez and wonderful production design by Shivam Rao. In the meantime, Savitri’s characterisation evolves from someone who is very playful to an actress who is quite aware of her acting prowess. The transformation is once again juxtaposed with her love story with Ganesan, which includes some of the iconic shots in the entire film. Here, they merely have a conversation by the sea, when Ganesan breaks the news about his past to Savitri. It is simple, but profound.
The grainy texture of the ‘80s makes way for the colourful environs of Madras in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which were arguably the best years of Savitri’s life. The flip-flop between these two tracks in the film might come across as too abrupt at times but it forms a bridge between two different generations, which is exactly what the film tries to underline. Mahanati offers a well-researched glimpse into the life of Savitri and it is perhaps the best way to introduce the next generation of moviegoers to an iconic actress. But in the end, despite all the dramatic moments in the lives of Savitri and Ganesan, apart from a host of other characters, the film lacks the drama that a biopic of this scale deserves. It tells you everything you need to know about Savitri, without leaving you with a high.
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