It was a much-loved song from an iconic film, shot on a much-loved actor. Could Keerthy Suresh do it? The film was Mayabazar (1957), a mythological fantasy that is just one of the many films that actor Savitri Ganesan is remembered for. The song: Aha naa pellanta, in which the actor switches seamlessly between a young maiden and the burly, mustachioed Ghatotkacha. “There is one part where, as Savitri amma is dancing, her plait swings around and comes over her shoulder. She then holds it and continues to sing,” recalls Suresh who played the actor in the Telugu biopic Mahanati (2018) and was understandably nervous about living up to a towering predecessor. “We could have gone with something that was close enough, if not exact. But I wanted to capture each gesture perfectly. So, we must have done some 30 to 40 takes just for that small bit,” says Suresh. Other actors in the film include Dulquer Salmaan, Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Prakash Raj.
That attention to detail, and a moving, pitch-perfect performance in a demanding role earned Suresh, 27, the National Award for best actress two weeks ago. She would nearly not have done the film. Her first reaction, when director Nag Ashwin narrated the movie to her, was “no”. This, she says, was based on the perfectly logical fear of taking on the task of playing someone who, even 38 years after her death, remains one of Telugu cinema’s most loved actors. What if she were to fail?
It wasn’t as if Suresh had done anything remotely similar in the five years of her film career until then. She had made her debut, as an adult, co-starring with Mohanlal in the Malayalam film Geethanjali (2013), filmmaker Priyadarshan’s spin-off of the National Award-winning Manichitrathazhu (1993). The movie performed poorly at the box office and Suresh was written off in reviews as having made only a “limited impression”. But her ambition held fast in the face of an unpromising start and parents who remained unsure, until recently, whether their daughter had made the right career move.
Born to Suresh Kumar, a Malayalam film producer with movies like Poochakkoru Mookkuthi (1984) and Aaram Thampuran (1997) to his credit, and Menaka Suresh, who had acted in a number of south Indian films in the 1980s, Suresh knew early on that she wanted to be an actor. At the age of seven, she was cast in Pilots (2000), one of her father’s productions, as a child artiste, and went on to perform in Achaneyanenikkishtam (2001) and Kuberan (2002), also produced by him. “In Kuberan, I had a more substantial role, and my mother tells me that I was very dedicated — waking up early every day, taking a bath, doing my puja and getting ready to leave for the sets,” says Suresh.
“Even at that time, I remember being very sure that I wanted to act. It wasn’t just a pastime for me. My mother was my role model; she had been an actor and I wanted to be like her.” Her parents, however, made it clear to her that she had to get at least an undergraduate degree before she entered the film industry — at her own risk. “My father wasn’t going to make it easy for me by casting me in one of his films. My sister had gone to the US to study, and my parents wanted me to go as well, but I deliberately failed my entrance tests, so that I could stay back in India and earn a degree and make sure that the industry didn’t forget I was around. I studied fashion design. I thought that even if acting doesn’t work out, maybe I could remain connected with films by working as a costume designer.”
Suresh got her break when her father’s old colleague and friend, Priyadarshan, persuaded him to let his daughter kick off her career with Geethanjali.
The movie may have failed, but work from the Malayalam film industry came in at a steady pace. She tasted success with her role as a visually challenged girl in her second film, the Malayalam comedy Ring Master, which became one of the highest-grossing films of 2014. She made her Tamil movie debut in 2015 with Idhu Enna Maayam and her Telugu debut in 2016 with the romantic comedy Nenu Sailaja.
It was her mother who pushed her to take a chance with Mahanati. “My mother was a fan of Savitri amma’s work and she told me, ‘You have to do this film’. So, I went back to Nagi (Ashwin) and told him my misgivings. Nagi was very reassuring, and told me that he had complete confidence in me. So, I drew my confidence from that,” she says. To prepare, Suresh watched Savitri’s movies, and read the biography A Legendary Actress: Mahanati Savitri by VR Murthy and V Somaraju (2009). One of her chief worries was how the unflattering details of the actor’s life — her struggle with alcoholism, run-ins with the income-tax department and her failed marriage with actor Gemini Ganesan — would be depicted. “I didn’t want to do anything that would show her in a bad light. She was a strong woman, with a fascinating story and these are just the facts of her life. There should be no judgement,” says Suresh.
Her other worry was being able to capture who Savitri was as a person. “We all know the facts of her life and, of course, capturing her spontaneity as an actor was a challenge, but who was she as a person? That was the difficult part, because we don’t know what she was like off screen. It was while talking to her daughter, Vijaya Chamundeswari, that I realised what a fun-loving person she was, and with an excellent sense of humour. I also discovered that we had a lot in common — we both enjoyed swimming, driving and playing cricket. Like me, she too loved pulling this trick of turning her eyelids inside out to scare kids. I even walk like her, according to her daughter,” says Suresh.
Immersed as she was in the making of the movie, Suresh remained unaware for a long time that once the project was announced, people within the industry remained doubtful about her abilities to play the role. “It was only when I began doing press meets just before the movie’s release that I found out about it,” she says. It was with some trepidation that Suresh went to a Hyderabad multiplex to catch the first show of the film when it released on May 9 last year. “But every single screen was sold out, which was incredible for a heroine-centric film. When the title card came up and the theme song played, the audience burst into applause. They all still loved her and they were there for her.” And once the early reactions started rolling in on social media, she knew that her big gamble had paid off. “That’s when people started talking about it as a potential National Award-winning performance,” she says. This was also the first time that her parents congratulated her on her performance. “They would, of course, watch all my movies. But their comments were always about the film, not my performance. With Mahanati, for the first time, they told me that I had done a good job,” she says.
Suresh has just wrapped up work on Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, a Malayalam period film directed by Priyadarshan and co-starring Mohanlal, Suniel Shetty and Manju Warrier, which will release early next year. Her Hindi film debut, Maidaan, in which she’ll be starring opposite Ajay Devgn, has also been announced. Could one credit Mahanati for her entry into the big league? “Maybe,” she says, “But then, I have never strategised my career in this way. Projects have come my way and I have taken on what I thought I should. I didn’t think I would act in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi films, but it’s happening. To me, the most important thing is that I’m acting. That’s all I want.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘ Made in Her Image’