Pasamalar is a film I dread to watch till date. Released in 1961, the film had Sivaji Ganesan and Savitri playing siblings and the film explored the relationship between them. Considered the epitome of sibling love in Tamil cinema, Pasamalar remains unsurpassed in its ability to move audiences to tears. If you are not moved by Sivaji’s and Savitri’s acting in Pasamalar, chances are you wouldn’t be moved by anything else in life. To this date, Pasamalar is a point of reference to any casual talk on sibling love.
Pasamalar is among the several iconic performances that Savitri dished out in her 100 film old Tamil career. It was also among the twenty-odd films in which she would star with Sivaji Ganesan – though not necessarily as his pair.
If in Paasamalar she was his sister, in Karnan (1964), she played the role of Duryodana’s wife while Sivaji played the title role of Karnan. Despite being a not-so-significant role, it took just one scene to establish who Savitri was - the range of emotions portrayed by Savitri, from fear to embarrassment to relief, when her husband Duryodhanan (played by Asokan) makes no fuss about Karnan playfully pulling her sari in the midst of a game of dice. Playing a perfect foil to a guilt-laden Karnan, Savitri remains superbly subtle throughout.
In Padithal Mattum Pothuma (1962), she is the uneducated wife of Sivaji Ganesan’s cousin Balaji. Whatever her role, Savitri shone as brightly as the legendary Sivaji Ganesan on screen. But it is Navarathiri (1961), along with Pasamalar, that she is perhaps best remembered for. While Sivaji Ganesan acted in nine different roles, Savithri played a single role – Nalina – who comes across the nine characters on nine nights together – yet effortlessly pulls off a stunning performance. No other actor of her times could have done justice to the role playing opposite an enormously challenging Sivaji Ganesan. Savitri did.
Within the limitations of Tamil cinema during her period, Savitri came up with performances that have set a benchmark for actors in later years. To this day, every aspiring actor aspires to be Savitri.
It is not without reason that Tamil cinema celebrated her as Nadigaiyar Thilagam while Sivaji Ganesan was called the Nadigar Thilagam.
Savitri was a superstar in her own way, on her own terms. She broke several glass ceilings without knowing that she actually did. There were so many odd facts about her. She wouldn’t mind being part of a multi-starrer. Despite her tremendous acting prowess and stupendous success as heroine, Savitri starred only in a handful of films with the then reigning superstar M G Ramachandran. She probably didn't think twice before donning a small, less significant role. She could still come up with spectacular performances.
In a way, Nadigaiyar Thilagam was a tad disappointing in that Sivaji Ganesan was only a passing mention and comedian Chandra Babu, who was her close friend in the later years, didn't even get that. For a Tamil film-goer, a biopic on the legendary Savitri without talking about Pasamalar or Navarathiri, or about Ratha Thilagam (1963) where its producer lyricist Kannadasan proudly announced that the film stars both the Nadigar Thilagam and Nadigaiyar Thilagam, is not really complete.
But there are other ways by which Nadigaiyar Thilagam makes up for it. At least, it introduces her equally rich and varied Telugu career to the Tamil audiences. It goes beyond the on screen Savitri we all knew so well to show the path she had to traverse to become a Nadigaiyar Thilagam.
To anyone keenly following Tamil cinema, Savitri’s roller-coaster ride of a life is as evident as an on-screen portrayal. Tamil cinema witnessed both her rise as an actor nonpareil and her catastrophic fall from grace, reducing her to a supporting actor.
It is hard to contain a life so celebrated and so intense in a three-hour drama. Treading a thin line between being completely honest to the actor and making it appear typically insipid, the team has come up with a stunner. Keerthy Suresh’s performance makes one wonder if she has actually been haunted by Savitri.
To me, Savitri also means a bunch of evergreen Tamil songs that I grew up with. The song Aayirathil oruthi amma nee (You are one among thousand) from the film Kai Kodutha Deivam (1964) was ostensibly written by Kannadasan, also keeping in mind the dignity and charm of Savitri.
But personally, Kaalangalil aval vasantham from Paava Manippu (1961) is more of a favorite. Written by Kannadasan and portrayed by a love-struck Gemini Ganesan, the song is pure magic. A rough translation would go like this: Among the seasons, she is the spring; among the arts, she is the painting; among the months, she is Margazhi (the Tamil month of December-January); among the flowers, she is Jasmine.
Nadigaiyar Thilagam has written on celluloid a line left unwritten in this cherished song – Among the stars, she is the brightest.