At one point in Nadigaiyar Thilakam (Mahanati in Telugu), a producer says that everyone waits for the dates of Sivaji, NTR and Nageswara Rao. “But all these stars wait for the dates of Savithri,” he says.
There’s no better way to summarise the superstardom of the lady, who was undeniably one of the greatest actresses of Indian cinema. And Mahanati is no small feat to bring alive an era that now lives in the collective memories of a few. For those who have lived through the 1950s and 60s, the story of Savithri was almost a part of their growing up years. And to others, she is a legend or a fable, who is revered as Nadigaiyar Thilakam, or Mahanati (the great actress). This is the second film of director Nag Ashwin after his successful Yevade Subramanyam (2015) and Keerthy Suresh, the main lead, hasn’t proven her mettle yet. For these reasons, my expectations were extremely low when I went to watch Nadigaiyar Thilakam. But the entire team surprises you.
The movie, set between the 1940s and 1980s, tells the story in a series of flashbacks. The story of Savithri (Keerthy Suresh) is unearthed by the reporter Madhuravani (Samantha) and the photographer Anthony (Vijay Devarakonda). We know Savithri’s teens spent in stage shows, her arrival in Madras and her first stint with the camera. Those were interesting times. Singing stars like MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and PU Chinnappa were on their way out and with playback having come in, the ability to sing was no more a criteria to act. It was replaced with the ability to dance. Madras was teeming with new actors in search of a fortune and they were set to create history.
In Nadigaiyar Thilakam, you see a new era of post-independence Tamil and Telugu cinema in the making. You see Ganapathi Subramania Sharma working in Gemini Studios, falling for the charms of a girl called Savithri seeking a break there. This is much before you see him as the star Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salman). He found yet another love of his life Pushpavalli in Gemini studio, with whom he worked in Miss Malini (which was written by RK Narayan). Interesting that the lives of all these people would get intertwined at a later point.
You also see a film called Shavukaru under production, starring NT Rama Rao and a newcomer called Janaki, who would later be called Sowcar Janaki. Hardcore Telugu cinema fans also get to see a cameo by a digitally recreated NT Rama Rao in the movie.
For someone who has observed Savithri’s career, the film could be a series of What Ifs. What if Savithri had not insisted on working on the movie based on a Bengali novel despite her schedule being tight? We would not have seen her as Parvati in the bi-lingual classic Devadasu (1953). What if Bhanumathi hadn’t developed differences with the producer of Misiamma (1955) Aluri Charapani (Prakash Raj)? What if she had stuck to her decision not to act after her marriage with an already married Gemini Ganesan? Would the classic blockbuster Maya Bazaar (1957) been the same? It was also the first film where NTR played Krishna which helped him establish himself as a demi-god in public consciousness. What if she had not been so whimsical with respect to her financial decisions and not purchased the Tamil remake rights of Mooga Manasulu (1964)? The Tamil remake Praptham (1971) is often singularly blamed for landing her up in a financial mess. However, one cannot blame her business sense. In 1967, Milan, the remake of Mooga Manasulu was a super hit in Hindi and even fetched Nutan a Filmfare Best Actress Award.
And what if she had not decided to direct and produce her films when her box-office charm had begun to wane? Would she still have been in our midst?
But then, Nadigaiyar Thilakam wouldn’t have been made. And one has to thank Nag Ashwin for bringing the story of Savithri for a generation that hasn’t known her the way she should be remembered. Savithri was a single take artiste. She was a race car enthusiast, a director, photographer and a great philanthropist. In fact the last aspect of Savithri is highlighted often to make her larger than life. She also produced and directed Chinnari Papalu, a film that had largely a women’s crew, with a female producer, director, music director, art director and choreographer.
Her large heartedness also became her nemesis. Her tendency to help people later backfired and people in her circle of trust back-stabbed when her times were bad. Her downfall is so similar to that of Meena Kumari, a superstar who ran films on her merit, made the career of others, lived through a broken marriage and whose life was destroyed by alcoholism.
Savithri sold her bungalow in the upscale T Nagar to pay off her loans and taxes. There were reports back in the 1970s of Savithri being sighted commuting by bus from her smaller Anna Nagar residence to the film studios in Vadapalani and Kodambakkam. In the 1980s the news of her death created tremors among he fans. She did unimportant roles in her last few years to sustain herself.
A lot of the screen time is devoted to her love story with Gemini Ganesan. Her yearning for a father figure in her life and the lack of male attention is highlighted enough to reason her decision to fall for a man who seems to be madly in love with her. I didn’t think before watching the film that Dulquer Salman would be a convincing Gemini Ganesan. But once you watch the film, you know he has all it takes to be a charmer, who wins over women just with sweet nothings. This is one of the best written characters in the film. Dulquer leaves you with mixed emotions as Gemini, who cannot fathom his wife becoming the paragon of success and stardom. Yet, he advises her against foolhardy decisions that eventually lead to her downfall.
But the star of the hour is Keerthy Suresh. She tries her best to relive the character and breathes life into it in several scenes. One wonders what if the original speculation of Vidya Balan had been a reality. Remember how she put on 16kg for her The Dirty Picture to get the thunder thighs of Silk Smitha? Keerthy hasn’t physically transformed into Savithri. It assumes significance because Savithri’s uncontrolled weight gain also led to her losing roles in the late 1960s. But Keerthi gives you an unhindered view into the life of a legend. Watch her capture the meteoric rise and downfall of the superstar and you know you’re talking about an actor with a promising future. The hour belongs to her.
What didn’t work for me were the portions of Samantha. When you are deeply entrenched in the drama of Savithri, the parallel travails of the reporter comes across as an unwanted distraction. Two characters remain unspoken about in the film. One, her friend and actress Jamuna, who featured alongside her in some of her films and was associated with Savithri from her days on stage. And second is the director Bhimsingh who cast her in several of his 1960s films.
Mahanati is a story of stardom, the rise and the downfall. It’s what film legends are made of. Indian biopics are mostly hagiographies and even in this case, Savithri is shown as a victim of her circumstances. But it recreates an era that has gone by for the viewers of today and it is a joy to watch. Watch Nadigaiyar Thilakam to know what real actors are made of. Take your parents and let them relive an era they cherish. This is a piece of cinema that has to be experienced.