Film: “Mahanati”(Telugu with English Subtitles); Director: Nag Ashwin; Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer Salmaan, Samantha Akkineni, Vijay Devarakonda; Rating: ****
Truth, they say, is often stranger than fiction. Many episodes from the legendary Telugu-Tamil actress Savitri’s life may appear bizarrely improbable. And yet “herein lies the truth” what we see in this sprawling, flamboyant, swaggering spectacular bio-pic is what really happened in the legendary actress’ life.
Give or take the flourishes of fantasy that run sharply through this tell-all tale told with flair and feeling. In a stroke of sheer ingenuity, the scriptwriter has woven a fantasy-romance between two journalists (Samantha Akkineni and Vijay Devarakonda) unravelling the story of the iconic actress who gave Tamil and Telugu cinema their first female superstar. She had it all, and then she lost it. Savitri’s saga is a familiar riches-to-rags one, here brought to life with a vividness and vivacity that never fight shy of extravagance.
It’s all here, packed together in a series of deftly-written anecdotal sequences which jump into one another in an uneasy and furtive embrace of fact and fiction. Though the film is almost three hours long, our interest-level never flags. How can it, when the subject is such a mercurial creature of caprice?
Siddharth Sivaswamy’s screenplay screams for attention in every frame. And yet there is nothing aggressively inflated about the narrative. The larger-than-lifeness of the plot has to do with the subject. Savitri, as played with endearing impunity by Keerthy Suresh, is a childlike creature of whimsy: demonstrative, emotional, mischievous, self-destructive, all heart and generous to a fault. These qualities stood Savitri in good stead on camera but betrayed her in real life.
Bravely the film doesn’t gloss over the unpleasant aspects of Savitri’s life. The marriage to the much-married Tamil matinee idol Gemini Ganesan (played with an endearing vigour by Dulquer Salman) and the subsequent clash of egos, her lapse into alcoholism and her eventual plunge into penury are all dealt with a certain beguiling blend of melodrama and poignancy. The mix can be infuriatingly overblown for the uninitiated but highly satisfying for those who are familiar with the drama of deceit depression and descent that governs many success stories of the entertainment world.
Director Nag Ashwin demonstrates a surprising level of maturity in apportioning flamboyance to the real-life tale. The film is shot with a dash of adrenaline which constantly pumps up the drama without distorting the credibility of the proceedings.
The performances are constantly compelling. Samantha and Vijay (the latter in a very limited but appealing presence) bring to their investigative reporters’ role from the 1980s a touch of the wispy and wacky without forfeiting a claim to being genuinely interested in the legendary actress Savitri’s life story. However, Samantha’s outburst at the finale where she kind of reads out a homage to Savitri straight to the audience, doesn’t work.
Keerthy Suresh’s Savitri is an imp, a coquette, a child and a giver. The actress replicates the original’s physicality and sensitivities without allowing her performance to get excessively imitative. Dulquer’s Gemini Ganesan is a masterly portrayal of the male ego swathed in superficial compassion. Again, like Keerthy, Dulquer steers the performance away from being imitative.
There are memorable cameos from many including Nag Chaitanya playing his grandfather Nageshwara Rao. Director Ashwin makes telling use of the references and props from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s to not only recreate the flavour of those times but also to reflect on why those times are so distant and faded from memory. The songs and footage from Savitri’s heydays are mercifully moderately used.
There is an intrinsic hollowness and hypocrisy in the way a successful woman professional was treated by those whom she trusted. Savitri never failed. Those around her did. “Mahanati” celebrates a life that finally failed because of its generosity.