‘Mahanati’: The Savitri Biopic that TN Will Miss

‘Mahanati’, a biopic on legendary actor Savitri hits screens on 9 May. Here’s why it’s bae.

5 min read
Keerthi Suresh as Savitri in the biopic <i>Mahanati</i>.

Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer Salman still have a Savitri and Gemini Ganesan hangover. This was evident from the speeches of the two leads of Nag Ashwin’s biopic (bilingual) Mahanati, based on the life, love and times of the legendary Tamil and Telugu superstar Savitri.

Thanks to the film strike that was called off barely a week ago, Tamil Nadu will miss this ambitious film (Nadigaiyar Thilagam, in Tamil), when it hits screens on 9 May. This is because TN will release films retrospectively, beginning with those that missed their March and April releases. The Telugu version (Mahanati) will release on 11 May in Chennai.

Meanwhile, the effort and the circumstances that culminated into this movie are worth talking about. And any excuse to pay homage to one of the world’s finest actors, mustn’t be missed. So buckle up!


Too caught up to read? You can listen to the story right here.

Cine-Mayabazar; The Delusion of Cinema

Keerthy Suresh as Savitri in the biopic <i>Mahanati</i>.
Keerthy Suresh as Savitri in the biopic Mahanati.
(Photo Courtesy: Enright PR)

Savitri succumbed to severe health complications, after a 19 month long coma, in the winter of ‘81. She spent her last days in a tiny apartment in Annanagar (Chennai), asking passers by if they would give her son a ride in their car.

There was a time when she owned prime properties across town; had an in-house jewel craftsman who would design ornate pieces at her whim; earned more than her male counterparts; and was a race car enthusiast.

‘Mahanati’ (Great Actress) was the sobriquet the industry and the people bestowed unanimously on her. It is also the title of her biopic.

The movie now bears on its shoulders the weight of portraying the life of a character who remains an enigma, though 75 percent of her lifetime was spent in front of a camera.

A team of eight craftsmen and 15 karigars worked to create over 70 pieces of jewelry, over eight months, for the film.

  • Keerthi Suresh as Savitri in the biopic <i>Mahanati</i>
  • A piece of jewelry designed for <i>Mahanati</i>
  • A piece of jewelry designed for <i>Mahanati</i>

Dialogues, Direction, Life!

Keerthi Suresh in a still from <i>Mahanati</i>.
Keerthi Suresh in a still from Mahanati.
(Photo Courtesy: Enright PR)

Sai Madhav Burra, who penned the dialogues, needed no persuasion from director Nag Ashwin to begin work. It fell on him to write lines for all of the legends of Telugu cinema, who acted or were associated with Savitri, after all. What he didn’t believe - until he saw parts of the final film was that a director barely out of his twenties, and just one film old, knew enough about Savitri, to make a film on her.

To direct a period film, that too based on an artist who remains the most popular superstar in Telugu and Tamil film history, does take a lot of convincing.

‘Will you be able to do it?’ is what the producers (one of whom he is married to) and senior technicians (art/set creator Thota Tharani, lyricist Seetharama Sastry) asked him.

‘Will I be able to do it?’ is what the lead actors Keerthi Suresh, Dulquer Salman and Vijay Deverakonda asked him.

That they’re all on board, and rooting for Nag and his vision says something about his talent.


Pandora’s Box or Treasure Chest?

The ‘box’ from Mayabazaar, recreated in <i>Mahanati</i>.
The ‘box’ from Mayabazaar, recreated in Mahanati.
(Photo Courtesy: Enright PR)

Savitri believed that head-lice crawling across one’s forehead brought good luck. She debuted as a director in ‘68, in an unimaginably male-dominated industry, with an all-woman crew.

Savitri was giving to a fault, never refusing financial help to those who asked for it. She even wrote blank cheques to relatives who took advantage of this trait.
The star was a habitual defaulter on loans and bad with financial decisions both in business and domestically.

Savitri was devout, and conducted daily pujas and observed fasts regularly at home. She was an alcoholic, who ruined familial ties, health and career, thanks to her habit.

It is doubtful that Mahanati will convey Savitri’s life without the sepia of adoration or the pancake of sympathetic considerations that often mask truth. Nevertheless, it is bound to be a celebration of an artist like no other. 

The Retelling

Dulquer Salman and Keerthi Suresh on the sets of <i>Mahanati</i>.
Dulquer Salman and Keerthi Suresh on the sets of Mahanati.
(Photo Courtesy: Enright PR)

Actor Samantha Ruth Prabhu, a star in her own right plays a pivotal role in the movie; that of a journalist/writer who seeks to discover Savitri who lay behind the scenes.

In a sense, this is what every biopic aims to do, and is therefore an on-screen extension of Nag’s quest. Samantha was the first star to come on board the ensemble, which includes Prakash Raj, Vijay Devarakonda, Rajendra Prasad, Mohan Babu and a cameo by NTR Jr. What would be interesting to watch, is the portrayal of Gemini Ganesan, Savitri’s husband and biggest weakness. Played by Dulquer Salman, the character is bound to be interesting, simply because the man himself was so. He adored Savitri and was jealous of her stardom in equal measure. He revelled in her company, but didn’t believe in the institution of marriage. At all. It was while he was married to Savitri and fathered two children, that he was also in a relationship with actor Pushpavalli, with whom he had two more children. He was a loving father, a passionate lover and a terrible husband. If the movie is told from the viewpoint of Savitri, the audience is sure to walk out hating the man.


Fingers Crossed?

Director Nag Ashwin on the sets of <i>Mahanati</i>.
Director Nag Ashwin on the sets of Mahanati.
(Photo Courtesy: Enright PR)

Nag Ashwin’s debut, Yevade Subramanyam was a sort of coming of age film set in the Himalayas. It was produced under the Vijayanti banner, who have been in the industry for over four decades and behind some of the biggest films in Telugu. Mahanati is a Himalayan task even for such a long standing production house, thanks to its ensemble cast and dependence on huge physical set pieces.

It is the hope of the producers, actors and the fans, that it will all come together, and for another brief moment, bring Savitri - the effervescent powerhouse of talent - back to life.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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