The word feisty wouldn’t be enough to describe ‘mahanati’ Savitri. She was childlike in embracing the wonderful moments life presented her with, unafraid to live life on her terms, was generous and also reckless, drowning in a quagmire from which there was no way out. The real story of Savitri, as reporter Madhuvarani (Samantha) and photojournalist Antony (Vijay Deverakonda) discover, was a momentous one. It is this story of her humble beginnings, meteoric rise, tumultuous and heady romance, and the impending doom that director Nag Ashwin brings to life effectively, with the help of an impeccable team.
To narrate Savitri’s story, intertwining it with the journey of a young woman journalist trying to rise above her limitations, is a masterstroke. Madhuvarani and Antony are the underdogs in the newsroom. It looks like a no-go when they begin trailing the story of Savitri who’s in coma. This is the early 80s, shot intentionally grainy, keeping with the technicolor cinema of the time. As the stuttering reporter, Samantha makes you root for her. Her sincere, serious outlook to work and life is contrasted by the effervescent Vijay Deverakonda. The camaraderie between these two characters is a delight.
The actual story takes off when we are ushered into the rustic Vijayawada of the 1940s and 50, when childhood friends Savitri (a brilliant Keerthy Suresh) and Susheela (Shalini Pandey, in an impressive role after Arjun Reddy), are having a great time acting in theatre productions.
It takes a little getting used to as the story moves to Madras as Savitri, backed by her calculative uncle K V Chowdhury (Rajendra Prasad), tries her luck in the movies. A lot has gone into the setting up of Madras and its studios of the 1960s and the effort shows. The eyes linger on frames filled with props, clothes, cameras, trams and cars of that era before being drawn into the story.
There are several cameos — Krish as KV Reddy, Tharun Bhascker as Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, Srinivas Avasarala as LV Prasad, Prakash Raj as Chakrapani and Naga Chaitanya as ANR… the sequence that shows young Savitri’s unabashed admiration of ANR is a lot of fun. And that segment about Savitri shedding precisely two drops of tears from one eye, without glycerine… is that true? Mahanati is packed with anecdotes that trigger curiosity.
The best portion of the film is the romance between the charismatic Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan — they couldn’t have found a better actor to play Gemini) and Savitri. The romance sweeps the young Savitri off her feet and the two songs by Mickey J Meyer are used to good effect. The film belongs to Keerthy and Dulquer as they imbibe the mannerisms of the legendary actors they’re portraying but don’t end up as caricatures. Dulquer scores with his effortless ease, and Keerthy owns every moment on screen. The Mayabazaar recreation is a win, and that’s no mean task. Mohan Babu as SV Ranga Rao is another casting done right.
Nag Ashwin doesn’t shy away from showing the complexities of the Gemini-Savitri relationship. Savitri’s awkward moments with his first wife Alamelu (Malvika Nair), the envy and rift between Gemini and Savitri are tellingly portrayed. There’s bound to be debate about Savitri’s later years, but going purely by the cinematic experience, it’s a compelling story that showcases the fragility of star power, money and fame.
The biopic is not told in a hurry, so stay with the leisurely pace and let the layers of the story reveal themselves gradually.
The brilliant technical crew led by cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez deserves a pat on the back. The shift between black and white and colour is seamless, but I wished the 80s hadn’t been that grainy. The costumes, styling, production design, yesteryear Tamil and Telugu films and songs… Mahanati is a treasure trove that deserves a watch for several reasons. Above all, it’s a celebration of Savitri, the person.