Tollywood
Kudos to director Nag Ashwin for making some brilliant decisions that give us a sensational cinematic experience.

A stammering reporter, Madhuravani (Samantha), a BA gold medallist in journalism battling her own ghosts, is looking for her first big break in journalism. She doesn’t add the suffix ‘garu’ when she asks about ‘Savitri’ to a movie industry veteran (Naresh), who then corrects her saying, ‘Pedda valani gouravinchali. Savitri garini peddavalu kuda gouravinchali’. (You should respect elders. Savitri garu should be respected even by elders).

That line brings goosebumps, first of a caravan of such moments in what is probably the movie of the year. How can one forget the moment where Savitri promises a director she’ll do a scene in one take without glycerine, shedding exactly two teardrops only from her left eye, as he demands! Goosebumps refuse to leave you after that.

When we watch biopics, it is very easy to be confused whether it was a good story that gave us the stunning experience or whether it was good filmmaking. Often times, great stories cloak the incompetence in the making of the biopic. Often times, great filmmaking cloaks a mediocre story. But the story of ‘Mahanati’, probably south Indian film industry’s most revered female figure, is a once-in-a-lifetime epic. It is safe to say we are indebted now to Nag Ashwin, who has pulled off a stunner.

As I walked into the movie hall a little sceptically, there was the fear of facing the end, which, no matter what, would end tragically. Almost everyone has heard about the tragic end to a life whose every step was worth celebrating. But kudos to Ashwin for making some brilliant decisions that give us a sensational cinematic experience.

To start with, Ashwin focuses a lot on the childlike innocence, playfulness and zeal of the actor, who even as a child learns dance without a teacher just because a guru chides her that she can never learn it. Savitri’s starry-eyed crush for ANR makes us smile and her yearning for a father she had never seen makes us tear up a little bit. Her stage shows, her love for trams, her wit – we fall in love with every bit.

The editing by Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao is enthralling as the audience moves between two timelines – a period drama set within a period drama (1980, when Madhuravani is trying to write about Savitri even as the latter is in a coma in the hospital). A hat-tip here to the production design and costume crew. We see Savitri, the cherub-faced 14-year-old, making waves in Madras. We see Savitri mimicking SV Ranga Rao. We see Savitri eating laddus with a fan she adopts as house help (who later steals from her, like a bunch of others who exploit her unwavering generosity). We see Savitri, the wife, ready to sacrifice herself to household chores. We see all these brilliant incarnations of the great actor long before we see her as an alcoholic, unable to deal with her man cheating on her. And it breaks our hearts, like it breaks hers!

It was hard to imagine that down south we could have a movie with two leading ladies and no protagonist. But Mahanati pulls off exactly that, once again thanks to the Dutts and Vyjayanthi Movies. Keerthy Suresh has probably done what every actor aspires to do – do complete justice to the role of a lifetime. It is hard to miss her unmistakeable resemblance to the great actor. At the same time, Samantha holds her own, especially in the climax, and her monologue in the hospital ward room in the dark will make you well up with tears, thankful that it is dark in the movie hall and everyone is equally melancholic.

Siddhaarth Sivasamy’s screenplay brilliance makes sure this biopic is not just a narration of a well-known story. Madhuravani’s tale in a patriarchal society gives us something to root for. Her love story with Anthony (Vijay Deverakonda), a photographer who loves truth more than his career, isn’t eclipsed by the magnum-opus of a story she is chasing. Little moments like Madhuravani starting her dad’s dilapidated old Luna in one kick, as he challenges one time – to fight for her love – make you feel like you are watching two brilliant stories entangled in one. In a way, we the audience are like Madhuravani, evolving with the story, growing wings as we learn more and more about the great actor, in love with her more than ever before.

The genius of Ashwin also shows in the way he portrays the love tale between Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan) and his ammadi (Savitri) with a velvet glove. Despite the maligned love taking a toll on Ganesan’s legacy as an actor, there is no blame game here, no accusations. Ganesan’s egotism and his philandering costs Savitri everything, but the focus firmly remains on how their love, while it lasted, was magically true and how Ganesan did love her until the end. (A touch of Marilyn Monroe’s tragedy came back to me, but then unlike Monroe, Savitri never loved another man).

Unlike the usual ‘interval bang’, Mahanati gives a thrilling finish to the first half, the muse standing in front of Ganesan’s house, drenched in rain, in front of his first wife. It is amazing how several well-known personalities of the movie industry like Mohan Babu (SV Ranga Rao), Prakash Raj (Chakrapani), Naga Chaitanya (ANR) and others play bits-and-pieces roles, almost like doing their bit in this sacred ritual of honouring the great soul.

Dani Sanchez-Lopez’s cinematography deserves applause – great shades of lighting, great camera angles and stunning, metaphorical frames that remind you of the Hindi movie, Barfi, where every shot feels like a painting. Mickey Meyer’s soundtrack is like the sound of ripples on a boat-ride, the lilting Sada Ninnu Chupe, the gem amidst gems.

Mahanati, more than being a movie, is a bunch of beautiful, artistic, empathetic, sensitive decisions. What greater joy than so many delicate decisions paying off in style. That bunch will remain aromatic for a while, a trailblazer of sorts in TFI, when it comes to creating biopics. Probably, somewhere, Savitri’s soul might smile at the way her biopic was dealt with, for no one could leave the hall without being well and truly in love with her, the lady whose story Madhuravani titles ‘Aakasa veedilo andala jabili’.