The unveiling of Savitri’s statue in Guntur last year was a telling event, one where the icon’s overarching legacy was being claimed by speaker after speaker. While some proudly expressed how she was the ‘daughter’ of Andhra and Telugu cinema’s greatest jewel, Tamil actress Suhasini, who unveiled the statue, had the last word in this proprietary tussle. “She might be your daughter, but she settled down as our daughter-in-law in Tamil Nadu,” she quipped.
That is how intensely the Telugus and Tamils competed to stake claim to Savitri’s rich legacy. No other actor in South India has straddled the cinema of two states and languages with such ease and dominance as Savitri did during the 50s and 60s. She was adored as “Mahanati ” (great actress) by her Telugu fans and the Tamil audience equated her with their king of acting, Sivaji Ganesan, by giving her the honorific “Nadigaiyar Thilagam” (the pride of actresses). Sivaji was “Nadigar Thilagam.” Savitri enthralled audiences of other sates as well—she did films in Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi, but her presence in Tamil and Telugu cinema was phenomenal.
No wonder then that her biopic is also bilingual —it’s titled Mahanati in Telugu and Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil. “Savitri was a bilingual superstar and needs to be celebrated in both the languages in which she had done more than hundred films each,” said Nag Ashwin, the director of the biopic.
Keerthi Suresh as Savitri
“Savitri was a bilingual superstar and needs to be celebrated in both the languages,” says director Ashwin.
“So many film makers had approached us wanting to make a documentary or a movie on her life, but we had resisted their overtures as we were so sick of all the rumours about Amma’s life, especially her last years,” disclosed Vijaya Chamundeeswari, Savitri’s daughter. “But Ashwin, who is married into a respected family of Telugu film makers, promised that the script would be vetted by us to avoid any misrepresentation,”
Ashwin had a tough task ahead of him—to recreate both the magic of Savitri’s cinematic performance and her personal life, which was never devoid of drama. “So, we decided to cover her entire life, of course compressed into 150 minutes, the ups as well as the downs. There is so much of urban legend spun around her final years that we had to tread carefully, sifting fact from fiction,” said Ashwin.
The film dwells substantially on the chemistry between Savitri and Gemini Ganesan, whom she married in her early 20s soon after stepping into Tamil cinema. “Her days with Gemini were her happiest, especially when the couple spent time together at the bungalow in Kodaikanal,” recalled veteran actor A.R. Srinivasan. “They had many common interests. She was like a happy child in his company; chirpy and all mischief. It did not matter that Gemini was already married, 16-years-older to her and was even having an affair with Pushpavalli. Savitri’s world consisted of Gemini and their children,” surmised the actor, adding: “Savitri was the only filmstar with a swimming pool in her house. She was so fond of swimming.”
Ashwin chose to cast Malayalam superstar Mammootty’s son Dulquer Salmaan as Gemini Ganesan, as he “wore Gemini’s polished charm with ease”. “Since Gemini and Savitri were the first celebrity couple of South Indian cinema I needed someone to capture Gemini’s romantic looks and appeal,” observed Ashwin. But identifying the heroine proved to be a much more difficult task. Finally, after many screen tests, he pinned down Keerthi Suresh, also a Malayalam actress but with forays into Tamil and Telugu films. “Keerthi proved to be a surprise package as she quickly got under the skin of Savitri. Her resemblance to Savitri and charming screen presence came in very handy,” said the director.
Keerthi thinks of her role as every actor’s dream role: “Playing a legend and living up to her aura was emotionally demanding but equally satisfying. I prepared by watching one film starring Savitri ma’am every day and talked to her family members and fellow actors who had known her in person. It helped that like her—I too like swimming, driving and sports. I am so lucky to do such a role so early in my career,” she said.
Sathish and Vijaya next to their mother Savitri’s portrait
To capture Savitri in various stages of her life, Mahanati’s cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez had to juggle with special lighting and a range of lens. Keerthi too had to wear prosthetic makeup to portray a plump Savitri. The legend had gained a lot of weight towards the end of her career. To show this posed a challenge for the film makers, but they overcame it. Keerthi had to wear more than a hundred costumes as she flitted between the many looks of Savitri over the decades. “When I saw the completed movie during dubbing, I was in tears,” confessed Keerthi.
Ashwin wants the film to be a celebration of the artiste and her stardom. “Savitri was the only heroine who could measure up to Sivaji—expression for expression and dialogue for dialogue,” observed actor Kavithalaya Krishnan. “In the film Navarathiri, Sivaji would have played nine roles, but Savithri who encounters all the nine would challenge Sivaji histrionically. So much so that Sivaji commented that if he had not been alert, she would have gobbled him up.”
Ashwin chose Malayalam actor Dulquer Salmaan for the role of Gemini Ganesan, as he “wore Gemini’s polished charm with ease”.
She was also the only actress who, shattering the industry’s bias, stayed in demand even after childbirth. “The main reason that people came to see her act and emote was her command over her craft. True, she was largely typecast as a tragedy queen, but you must see Navarathiri and Mayabazar for a sampling of her impish streak. Since the audience of her time revelled in melodrama, she was often the first choice of producers in such tearjerkers. But she loved the comic roles she did, playing characters which were closer to her personality,” recalled Savitri’s daughter Vijaya.
When her career stumbled, owing to losses incurred by producing films and alleged alcoholism, some of her on-screen image of a tragedy queen got supplanted to her real life as well. “The media went to town about her split with Gemini Ganesan, her financial woes and her health problems, painting a picture of tragedy descending on her in real life too. It happened to Meena Kumari in the North and to Savitri in the South. Rather than celebrate a great talent, so much negativism got infused into her life by those in the film industry and the media,” rued Srinivasan.
Sowcar Janaki, a contemporary of Savitri and a star of the times in her own right, acted with Savitri in her last Kannada film, the one that she could not complete. The film was ironically titled Aaarada Gaaya (Unhealed Wound). Janaki, who remembers Savitri as a brilliant actress, observed that “her fall was equally steep due to her wrong decision to produce films.” Janaki has also rubbed shoulders with Savitri in Telugu, Tamil and other Kannada films. “Her drinking problem too proved to be a curse,” added Janaki. “I remember how she had left the shoot halfway during the filming of Aarada Gaaya. Incidentally we acted together in that movie. She left after I had just cooked her lunch. That is the last I saw of Savitri. I will always cherish her memory.” The film was released without Savitri in 1980. Soon after, Savitri went into a diabetic coma that lasted 19 months before she died in December 1981 at the age of 46.
Rubbishing the stories spun by the media around their mother at the time of her death, Vijaya and her brother, Sathish, say that Savitri did not die a destitute person and that she was not deserted by Gemini Ganesan. “My father and his first wife took care of her and us,” says Sathish. “Too many awful stories were spun around her to sell magazines. One famous woman author even wrote that she breathed her last on a rickety wooden cot uncared for inside a hut. My father had got her a special medical bed to prevent bed sores and she passed away, she was surrounded by her near ones. I am sure that after so many years of her demise, the public will finally learn the truth about her through the biopic.”
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai