Mahanati, the biopic on legendary actor Savitri, bagged three prestigious National Film Awards – Best Feature Film in Telugu, Best Actress and Best Costume Design. The movie was the brainchild of director Nag Ashwin, and his sisters Swapna Dutt and Priyanka Dutt provided him the funds to bring his cinematic vision to life.
In an exclusive conversation with indianexpress.com, Nag Ashwin opens up about his early memories of watching movies of Savitri, choosing Keerthy Suresh, who was touted as an unconventional choice for the coveted role, and why Samantha Akkineni and Vijay Deverakonda’s characters were important in the biopic.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What was your first reaction after finding out that your film Mahanati has won multiple National Film Awards?
It started with phone calls from journalists and I didn’t know what was it about. It really took me by surprise.
Did you have doubts and fears while taking up this project?
I did not have doubts about this project. But the only fear was whether I would be able to do justice (to the life story of Savitri). Because it is a true story, I was worried whether the people who already knew Savitri garu would find the film authentic.
What aspect of Savitri garu’s life touched you and inspired you to tell her story?
In the beginning, it was all the classic roles that she played in the movies. It was an inspiration for me to start research and learn more about her. But I think the way she faced the hard times later in her life inspired me. It really showed what kind of a person and soul she was. Because when a person is completely down, I think that’s when the person’s real character comes out. This part of her life made me tell her story more than the grandeur of Mayabazar or all of the other stuff. She was a well-known personality but her story always had a sad or negative shade to it.
Did you envision Mahanati as a tragedy film?
We knew that this film did not have a happy ending and we knew that we need to have a positive takeaway from it. That’s how the screenplay was. That’s why the characters of Samantha and Vijay Deverakonda were important in the film. To give us the satisfaction at the end of the movie. We just wanted to make sure we did justice to this project. And we did not compromise on any aspect.
You come from a different generation than Savitri garu. What was the first movie you saw of Savitri garu?
Missamma, Mayabazar and Doctor Chakravarthy are among my early memories. In my house, my grandparents always watched black-and-white old movies. Most of them had Savitri in them. I guess I was familiar with her before I became fully aware of her body of work.
When did you actually start paying attention to Savitri garu and her achievements?
Once you grow a little older and conscious, you watch movies and remember the actors in them. Missamma and Mayabazar are among the most memorable movies. But, I think only after college, I started watching old Telugu movies. I started paying attention to her acting.
How did this project come to you?
I always wanted to make this project ever since I knew about Savitri garu’s story. Then I shared this idea with Swapna and Priyanka (his sisters). They were very excited about it. I worked on the screenplay for almost a year. It was my idea and it took shape over a period of two years.
Keerthy Suresh in the film shared an uncanny resemblance to Savitri garu. How did you know that she was the one to play this character?
It was a very instinctive decision. Keerthy Suresh was on nobody’s list actually. Because in previous movies, she didn’t look like this and act like this. Nobody could understand what she could do. I saw her in Dhanush’s film Thodari. She had zero makeup and one costume throughout the film. I liked her in the film and suggested that we should give her a try. That was a long process. I had to convince the whole team that she can shoulder such a big project. I even had to convince Keerthy as she was not sure whether she could do it.
Why did you pick Dulquer Salmaan for Gemini Ganesan garu’s role?
More than the physical appearance, I wanted an actor who had Gemini Ganesan’s personality. A charmer. Everybody agreed that Dulquer Salmaan was right. Dulquer was an ideal choice.
Making a biopic is like a double-edged sword. You may rub off some people in the wrong way. Were you worried about that while writing this film?
Obviously, we did not want to create any controversy. It was all about Savitri garu’s story. Whatever was required for this story, we did.
Do you see yourself directing more biopics in future? If yes, which biopic would you like to make?
I don’t have (at the moment) any inspiration from any other story for a biopic. But, of course, if I love a personality that I want to explore, then yes. But, I don’t think of it as a biopic genre. I just think of it as a story.