At the risk of sounding like one is looking down upon the work done by other actresses in 2018, it would have been insulting if anyone other than Savitri would have won the National award for best actress. Keerthy Suresh, who reprised Savitri in `Mahanati’ did such a fabulous job that she was indeed most deserving. The film also won two other awards – for best Telugu film and best costumes. Designer Gaurang Shah was one of the three designers bestowed the honour, he had designed the period costumes for Keerthy as Savitri.
`Mahanati’ which translates to `Actress Supreme’ released in May 2018. It was the story of actress Savitri and her film career and love story with Gemini Ganesan, played by Dulquer Salmaan. What set apart the movie was how it explored the complex intricacies of their relationship. It was creditworthy given the fragile egos in filmdom where the personal lives of stars are largely left untouched.
For those unfamiliar with Savitri’s story, the girl from coastal Andhra clearly has been one of the most brilliant actors to emerge in south Indian cinema. She was the leading lady, for whose dates even top stars waited, in Telugu and Tamil cinema in the 1950s and 60s. Savitri had a meteoric rise and fall as well, passing away at the age of 45 in 1981, the last 19 months of her life in coma. She married Ganesan, knowing fully well that he was already married and was in a relationship with another woman.
`Mahanati’ excelled for the manner in which it showed how Ganesan experienced professional envy at not being able to match up to Savitri’s success. It led to fissures in their marital relationship. On the professional front, decisions to invest in poor quality cinematic ventures, cheated by people close to her and a charitable nature led Savitri to doom. She turned an alcoholic and finally collapsed.
`Mahanati’ was a brave cinematic effort. It brought to life a bubbly girl, who longed to know how her late father looked like, was so overawed by the thought of sharing screen space with Akkineni Nageswara Rao (played by his grandson Naga Chaitanya) that she goofed up the scene and could not make sense of the praise Prithviraj Kapoor showered on her in Hindi because it was a language she did not follow.
As Keerthy soaks in the news of winning the National award, she would remember what she had said in her pre-release interviews. She had revealed that she had first refused the title role because she was plain nervous about whether she would be able to play Savitri and the brickbats that would come if she made a hash of it.
That lack of confidence in fact, worked for her and the movie. The anxiety made her prepare better and the manner in which she breathed Savitri in every frame showed the effort had been worth it. The make-up, Gaurang’s costumes and the accessories complemented Keerthy’s acting as she played the radiant beauty who straddled celluloid more than half a century ago.
`Mahanati’ was also a commentary on life beyond the arc lights. Savitri’s life is in fact, is testimony to how letting her heart rule her mind led to wrong decisions that finally ended up taking her life at a young age. Viewers left the theatre with a heavy heart but completely overawed by Keerthy’s craft and the director’s vision.