The biopic Mahanati, which revolves around the life and times of actress Savitri who was a popular heroine in Telugu and Tamil cinema in the 50s and 60s, carries a caveat right at the beginning. It states that the film is a fictionalized account of the late actor's life.
This disclaimer absolves the makers with regard to the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the narration of the story, and in the depiction of the events in the life of the late star. But just as biographies often turn into hagiographies, biopics too can present a highly favourable picture of the protagonist, concealing warts if any and needlessly exaggerating hidden virtues while presenting other characters in a less than flattering light.
Apart from a fleeting reference to thespian Sivaji Ganesan with whom she starred in several films, mostly tearjerkers, her association with actors like MGR and even her husband Gemini Ganesan with whom she worked in a number of hits has been given the go by. She was equally popular in Tamil cinema as she was in Telugu and had a huge fan base in Tamil Nadu as well.
But what has stirred a hornet’s nest is the characterisation of the man who shaped her life and destiny from a very young age, Gemini Ganesan. The authorisation to make a film on Savitri was given by Savitri’s daughter Vijaya Chamundeswari, who also provided vivid insights into her mother’s life and career. While she has not noticed any flaws in the representation of her father Gemin Ganesan on screen, Gemini’s daughter by his first wife Alamelu (Bobji), Kamala Selvaraj, a leading doctor in Chennai has taken umbrage at the supposed raw deal meted out to Gemini.
Kamala is sore that in their overzealousness to put Savitri on a pedestal, they have allegedly denigrated Gemini. The late actor is alleged to have introduced Savitri to alcohol at a party and that eventually led to her lifelong affair with the bottle which ultimately took a heavy toll on her health and led her to an early grave. While this fact has been vouched for by those who were close to the actor, Kamala vehemently denies such a development.
The film has also chosen to overlook the agony suffered by Gemini’s first wife when the realisation dawned on her that Gemini had taken on a new and much younger wife. But Savitri’s angst on hearing about the actor’s infatuation with a contemporary, Pushpavalli (mother of Bollywood siren Rekha) has been well documented. Did Gemini desert Savitri and leave her to her fate or was it vice versa is another matter where the film has taken a contrarian stand.
This apart, Dulquer, the Malayalam actor and megastar Mammootty’s son who essays the character of Gemini is shown in a few frames as a jobless actor hanging around the sets where Savitri is shown as busily shooting for her films. This is in stark contrast to the real situation as Gemini was, right through his long and eventful career, a highly rated actor, third in the pecking order after MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. He also had a considerable fan following. As a matter of fact it was Savitri who struck a lean patch towards the fag end of her career when she began to pile on the pounds and her health took a beating with diabetes setting in. Only directors like the late Dasari Narayan Rao continued to cast her in their films but the spark had long gone out of her acting and her performances too began to suffer.
The first part of the film has detailed her advent into cinema, how she first met Gemini, then a manager in a studio and how she slowly worked her way up the ladder to fame and prosperity. She was by no means stylish or svelte like the actors of today but she had the innate ability to light up the screen with her nuanced portrayals. She was the ultimate tragedienne but was also adept at comedy. The film has highlighted all these features of the star in the early frames.
Savitri’s alcoholism was not the only factor that debilitated her and turned her into a physical and mental wreck. Like Gemini who had a nose for business and invested heavily in real estate, Savitri too took a leaf from his book and followed suit. But where she really put her foot wrong was in turning director and producer. She ignored the sane advice given by, among others, the famous scriptwriter of the time, Aroor Das, who was also a close confidant. She sunk a fortune into the films she produced only to end up on the verge of bankruptcy as her ventures turned into duds at the box office.
Generous to a fault she never turned down any request for money and this trait was often exploited by sycophants and hangers on who fleeced her. In the final analysis one can safely conclude that Mahanati is a biopic that blends fact and fiction. The makers have delved deep into the life of the star and have brought out the essence, highlighting her rise and fall in the process. But a dispassionate view of the roles played by all those associated with her at various phases of her life and her own failings is indeed conspicuous by its absence.
(Views expressed are author's own.)