Mahanati movie cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Keerthy Suresh, Samantha Akkineni, Vijay Deverakonda
Mahanati movie director: Nag Ashwin
Mahanati rating: 4 stars
For several decades now, movies have been made on the unforgiving nature of the film industry. And about the loneliness that engulfs the lives of superstars that eventually leads them to engage in self-destructive behavior. Director Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati (Great Actress) is offering us an inside look into the life of legendary actor Savitri, who was arguably the only female actor to dominate the Indian film industry during the middle part of the twentieth century.
Savitri could give Sivaji Ganesan a run for his money in acting. Not for nothing, Savitri was celebrated by the industry and fans as Nadigaiyar Thilagam (the pride of actors – female), while Sivaji Ganesan was Nadigar Thilagam (the pride of actors – male).
The story begins with Savitri’s (Keerthy Suresh) son discovering his unconscious mother in the bed of a hotel room in the 1980s Bengaluru. She is rushed to the hospital where a few nursing staff, who have zero interest in pop culture, treat her case with their usual professional negligence. When the hospital is thronged by hundreds of people, ministers and the media, the staff in question ask themselves, who is she?
Cub reporter Madhuravani (Samantha Akkineni) and her photographer colleague Vijay Anthony (Vijay Devarakonda) are deployed by their employer to report on Savitri.
Instead of engaging in the might-have-been theories of Savitri’s life, like her contemporaries, she decides to piece together a story which will shed light on the true off-screen personality of the legendary actor. The assignment sets her off on a rewarding journey, which liberates herself from the shackles of patriarchy at home and workplace.
Madhuravani draws inspiration from Savitri’s personal stories as told by the people who knew the actor personally. She even tells her passive-aggressive father to call off her wedding that he has fixed as she is going to marry her Christian boyfriend Vijay Anthony.
At the heart of this empowering story, there is tragedy. Very early on, we get to see Savitri sobbing while reading the Telugu version of Bengali classic Devdas. She is instantly drawn into the tragic love story between Devdas and Parvati. And she has a tendency to get involved herself too much in the characters she plays on-screen.
It’s during the making of Devadasu (1953), Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan) reveals to Savitri that he is married to Alamelu and has a kid too. Still reeling from the heartbreak, Savitri gives a moving performance as Parvati in an emotional scene. Gemini, the charmer he is, uses the same tragic romance of Devdas and Parvati to convince Savitri to follow her heart and not be bothered by other people’s opinions. In other words, he convinces her to marry him in secret.
And Gemini keeps his marriage to Savitri a secret until circumstances force him to come clean. Later, like Devdas, he turns to alcohol as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that his wife is more successful than him. But, no amount of alcohol helps him to make peace with the truth. He spirals out of control and begins to emotionally hurt his super-successful wife.
As a dutiful wife, Savitri tries to save Gemini from drinking himself to death. She even abstains from receiving a Padma award and slowly cuts back on her film career in fear of upsetting her jealous husband.
A drastic switch happens in Savitri when she finds out Gemini’s affair with Pushpavalli. Now, she becomes the female version of Devdas, drinking her body weight in alcohol and drowning herself in self-pity. She dumps Gemini and never looks at his face again.
Director Nag is not very keen on telling us what a great screen actor she was as he knows that Savitri’s work in more than 260 films speaks for itself on that front. He has recreated a few iconic shots with Keerthy from Savitri’s old movies to stress on Savitri’s versatility in acting.
But he has kept his script focused on tracing Savitri’s compassionate and stubborn personality. There is also focus on the traits that helped her scale great heights in the world of cinema and those that caused her to hit rock bottom in her personal life.
With an ensemble cast, Nag manages to whip up a wholesome human drama based on the real-life romance of two iconic actors. The premise of the film has allowed the director to pay homage to some filmmakers and actors who shaped the Indian cinema in its early stages.
I could even spot Nag’s hat-tip to Kamal Haasan and Mani Ratnam. In a scene where a temple inside a film studio is dismantled into several parts and rolled off, it reminded me of a similar sequence in Avvai Shanmughi, another film about the romantic challenges of a film artist.
In one scene, Gemini hustles Savitri to the terrace to show the hundreds of fans gathered outside her residence to catch the glimpse of her. It felt like a homage to Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, a film that follows how jealousy causes a rift between two buddies.
Nag has used the rain in the backdrop to narrate the important turning points in Savitri’s life. And cinematography Dani Sanchez-Lopez beautifully complements Nag’s script with his lens, especially in scenes when Savitri begins to lose control over her life.
Given that the director has to encompass 45 years of Savitri’s life in 176 minutes, he has used a lot of montage shots. Composer Mickey J Meyer has done a great service to Nag’s efforts to rush through a few chapters in Savitri’s biopic.
The four best things to happen to Nag’s film are Dulquer Salmaan, Keerthy Suresh, Samantha Akkineni and the costume designers. These three actors are in top form and equally shoulder this film. Dulquer and Keerthy make it really look easy to play iconic characters and the costume department has stitched out the best dresses for the film’s lead actors making the fashion of the 50s desirable in 2018.
Mahanati is a very good drama that south India has produced in a long time.