Mahanati reiterates Savitri as once-in-a-lifetime talent whose aura went beyond films
Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati showcases iconic actress Savitri’s turbulent life and in doing so, the film also captured the imagination of a young audience.
There’s a scene in Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer starrer Mahanati where Madhuravani (Samantha) asks a photographer, “Do I need some sort of eligibility to write about Savitri?” To this, the photographer, played by Naresh, retorts saying, “Yes. You need all that and more to write about Savitramma.”
It takes Madhuravani by surprise and slowly, as she pieces together the rise and fall of Savitri, she begins to understand why she was more than a just a star. To those who had seen her up close on the sets of a film – she was a star; to those who were touched by her generosity – she was the purest soul they had ever come across; to those who grew up listening about her – she is nothing short of a legend. Mahanati combines all these aspects seamlessly to introduce the younger generation of moviegoers to the life of Savitri, one of brightest stars that ever shone in Telugu and Tamil cinema.
Not long after the film released, the writer had an unusual interaction at a coffee shop in Hyderabad, when an assistant writer in Telugu film industry, Srikanth, wanted to talk to him about the movie. His admiration for Savitri went far beyond Mahanati, and the conversation that ensued put it in perspective why the story of the actress has stood the test of time.
“My grandmother was an ardent admirer of Savitri and she had the opportunity to meet her numerous times in the ‘70s when the latter was in Madras. Her alcoholism had already taken a toll on her health. One day, my grandmother found a bottle that was broken in Savitri’s house and she brought it home, and pieced it together. Eventually, she turned it into a work of art resembling a sailing ship. As a kid, I remember making fun of my grandmother every day for keeping that as a souvenir, but I failed to understand how much it meant to her until I saw the film. It constantly reminded her about the person she admired the most in her life, and I was in tears when I thought about it after watching Mahanati,” Srikanth elaborated.
The film was the bridge that connected the three different generation of moviegoers – those who knew her during her heydays, those who had grown up watching her films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and finally today’s generation who are curious to know why their parents and relatives get so nostalgic while talking about Savitri.
Mahanati, as seen through Nag Ashwin’s eyes, answers a lot of questions about Savitri’s life, especially her tryst with alcoholism and marital discord. While a lot of these aspects have already been well-documented, another major subtext in the film is that it constantly tries to ask us – How should we remember her after all these years?
Nag Ashwin has an answer too and he chooses to highlight how benevolent she was, even during the darkest day of her life. When she is at the zenith of her stardom, she has no qualms to give away wads of money, jewellery to those who seek help from her; another time, she donates all this to contribute to PM Relief fund during the Indo-China war; another time, she gives away her own money when her film’s producer cheats the financiers; and finally, after she loses everything, she is so moved by a car driver’s struggle to get his daughter married that she pawns her sari to give him the money.
In another fascinating account of how kind she was, a retired branch manager from State Bank of India, Repalle, wrote, “Savitri had established a high school in her native village Vaddivaripalem in 1962, and for 10 years, they didn’t have any problems running the school. However, in 1975, there was a major crisis after the school didn’t get any funding from the government and they couldn’t afford to pay salaries to the teaching staff for almost six months. When Savitri got to know about this incident, she immediately sent a cheque of Rs 1,04,000 and asked the correspondent of the school to clear all the pending dues first. That is the Mahanati Savitri I know and I can’t think of a better example to explain what she meant to all of us back then and even today.”
In 1968, she directed Chinnari Papalu, which went on to win a Nandi Award for best feature film, and interestingly, Savitri worked with an all-female crew to make this film. Dani Sanchez-Lopez, cinematographer of Mahanati, said, “I can’t think of any other instance during that era where a lead actress went on to achieve such a unique feat. She has always defied the norms and this is just one example of that.”
Was she a symbol of feminism and gender equality? Absolutely. She was one of the very few actresses over the last 80 years or so who was treated on par, and sometimes even more, than her male counterparts. Despite all this, when darkness engulfed her life, her kindness became her biggest nemesis and several people close to her, and her own relatives, distanced themselves from her.
In a span of little under 30 years, she went on to act in more than 300 films, including several classics, in various languages and the range of her acting skills remains unmatched to this day. For the younger generation today, Mahanati is a quintessential time machine which introduces them to the life of Savitri, and it also serves as a reminded that somewhere in the decades that followed, Telugu film industry has lost its ability to write consistently strong female characters. There were quite a few filmmakers like K Vishwanath, Bapu-Ramana, Jandhyala, Balu Mahendra who gave us plenty of memorable films and female characters to root for, and now, it’s time for the new generation of filmmakers to take the baton forward.
Towards the end of Mahanati, there’s a wonderful monologue which Madhuravani (Samantha) delivers, where she explains how much Savitri’s life meant to her. “History will remember you as the greatest actress that ever lived,” she says. We couldn’t agree more. But more than that, she was also a human, whose immense talent and kindness couldn’t overcome the ghosts that tormented her life.
Mahanati reiterates Savitri’s stature as God’s gift to mankind, and at the same time, it underlines the fact that even such once-in-a-lifetime talents aren’t perfect in more ways than one. Life isn’t perfect, and it couldn’t be more true in case of Savitri. But the moment you close your eyes and think about Savitri and what Mahanati says about her, it reminds me of one particular scene quite early in the film where KV Reddy says, “Don’t forget. Your tears should be visible on just one side of your face.” That was a metaphor for her life – part happy, part sad, part inspiring, part heartbreaking.
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