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Once Upon A Time, A Star

Filmmaker Nag Ashwin on the making of his critically-acclaimed film Mahanati and the lasting allure of screen legend, Savitri.

Written by Pooja Pillai |
Updated: May 25, 2018 12:29:52 am
Keerthy Suresh as Savitri in Mahanati. Keerthy Suresh as Savitri in Mahanati.

As a child growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, Sunday afternoons for Nag Ashwin often meant sitting down with his family to watch old Telugu films on Doordarshan. Some of these were classics, made during the “Golden Age” of Telugu cinema in the ’50s, when filmmakers such as KV Reddy and LV Prasad were active and some of the biggest stars of the screen, such as NT Rama Rao, Akkineni Nagesware Rao (ANR), Anjali Devi and B Saroja Devi, were drawing audiences to theatres. For Ashwin, one of the most indelible images from these afternoons is actor Savitri’s face, beautiful and luminous as the camera focused softly on her. “I think I speak for many of my generation when I say that Savitri garu was an almost constant presence in our childhood,” he says over the phone from Hyderabad, where he is based, adding, “Every other film we watched or song we saw on TV, seemed to feature her.”

The actor — to whose name the honorific garu is still always appended — and her eventful life fascinated Ashwin for many years before he was finally able to make his homage to her. The biopic, Mahanati (released in Tamil as Nadigaiyar Thilagam), which released earlier this month, is already being called one of the biggest successes of the year. “In the decade or two that Savitri garu ruled Telugu cinema, she showed a different level of crowd-pulling power. She was apparently written off plenty of times during her career, for being too dark or for being on the heavier side. But none of that mattered, because something about her, whether it was her performance or her aura, just worked, and people loved her.”

Dulquer Salmaan as Gemini Ganesan. Dulquer Salmaan as Gemini Ganesan.

Mahanati follows Savitri’s life, from her childhood as a minor dance drama performer in Guntur district to her massive stardom in Telugu and Tamil cinema, her marriage to and subsequent estrangement from the already-married star Gemini Ganesan, her alcoholism and ill-health, the financial troubles that led her to do a string of second-rate films and her 19-month long coma before she died at the age of 45.

The research needed for the story was easily done, says Ashwin, since there was no dearth of material about her or of the period being covered in the film. “Plenty of people who worked with her and with Gemini Ganesan are still around, so we were able to get a lot of information from them. Besides that, her daughter, Vijaya Chamundeswari, was also helpful with titbits about Savitri garu’s life at home, how she would sit or walk,” says Ashwin. The real challenge was the cast, with almost 100 speaking roles in the film. Samantha Akkineni, who plays a journalist investigating the life of the actor, was the first to be cast, followed by Dulquer Salmaan who was cast as Ganesan. The hardest part to cast was Savitri herself, especially since Ashwin insisted upon getting Keerthy Suresh, the majority of whose acting experience, until then, had comprised eye-candy roles. “It took a while to convince everyone, since none of the work she had done before could be used as a reference. But I went with my gut instinct,” says Ashwin. As the box office results and reviews praising Suresh’s performance on the film prove, it was a gamble that paid off.

Director Nag Ashwin. Director Nag Ashwin.

Ashwin knew that telling this story of a much-beloved star required a great deal of sensitivity and would prove to be quite a task for anyone, let alone someone who was only one film old. His first film, the coming-of-age drama Yevade Subramanyam, released in 2015 to a warm critical and commercial reception. At that point, he had been in the industry for about four years, as an assistant director in movies such as Leader (2010) and Life is Beautiful (2012). The 32-year-old is not from a film family — both parents are doctors — and he himself had trained as a journalist before he realised that storytelling via the fictional devices of cinema was his true passion.

A successful debut was an encouraging start to his career as a filmmaker and gave him the confidence to tackle his second project. “As I found out more and more about Savirti garu, I thought it would be a project that would take a long time, and should ideally be something I would do later. But I also realised that if I put it off now, I might not have the same honesty or approach needed to handle it later,” he says.

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