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Movie: Mahanati; Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer Salmaan, Samantha, Vijay Deverakonda; Direction: Nag Ashwin
The very idea of Savitri’s biopic is exciting for two reasons -- she was such a legend and never before a story of a famed actor is told onscreen in Telugu cinema. Director Nag Ashwin has pulled off a casting coup of sorts and arrived with a case study on the prolific actor.
An ambitious journalist Madhuravani (Samantha) and photographer Anthony (Vijay Deverakonda) were entrusted with the job of discovering the life of Savitri before she slipped into a coma, battling for life. After the press meet of Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan), the duo observes one Keshava (Naresh Vijaya Krishna) holding a bunch of flowers, hesitant to enter the actor’s house. The duo believes that there's more to the story than what's being told and meet Keshava, who tells them that Savitri is a great actress and asserts that his belief will hold true for the generations to come.
We then get introduced to childhood friends Savitri (Keerthy Suresh) and Susheela (Shalini Pandey) performing theatre productions in a hamlet near Vijayawada. She was driven to learn dance by her uncle KV Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad) who finds there’s a lot of money in it. Following a suggestion from a relative, Chowdary takes the 14-year-old Savitri to Madras, the citadel of the then South India cinema to try her luck in acting. We get a glimpse of the 60s Madras comprising horse carts, trams and film studios filled with shifting lights, props, outfits, cameras and huge sets which authenticate the movie’s background.
As Savitri starts making her strides in acting, she then gets attracted to her co-star Gemini Ganesan from a Tamil film Manampol Mangalyam. As she starts shooting for Akkineni Nageswara Rao’s Devadas, in real life too, she finds herself discussing the film with Ganesan who makes a startling revelation about his marriage to Alimelu (Malavika Nair).
"I am married to Alimelu due to some unforeseen circumstances and have two kids. But, I find love in you," confesses Ganesan, much to her astonishment. He adds, "Pelli aina vadu premalo padithe, adhi pelliki pareeksho...prema ki pareeksho." This conversation defines the relationship between the duo and is also the turning point of the film. Without any question, it’s a credit to Ashwin’s screenplay that one can understand and empathise with her, although there were many reasons one might not easily comprehend as to why she has chosen this path when everything seems alright.
Mahanati presents the chronological events from the life of the South cinema's most celebrated actor -- Savitri. She has several facets to her personality like innocence, impulsiveness, stubbornness, generosity and explosiveness. Usually, we get to see biopics that were bloated but here, the director is sensible enough to decide what works for the film and stayed loyal to the story, with a difference. It's a difficult task to squeeze the story of a legendary actor into 157 minutes without it feeling like a slog. The makers were not hesitant to depict the darker aspects of the tragic life of Savitri and most of the second hour is confined to showing how her life has spiralled down due to betrayal, loneliness and financial crisis.
The director takes his own sweet time to reveal all the cards as they come off one by one and rightfully so. Each time you think you've got it all figured out, another surprise hits you out of the blue. That's not to say you haven't guessed some of the events happened in Savitri's life in advance. The film’s pace is not an issue as you will completely sink into the heart-wrenching narrative. Nevertheless, it’s the story of Savitri!
For any biopic, the biggest achievement is when the director finds an actor who resembles the character they play on screen.
As for Mahanati, even before the release, Ashwin has emerged victorious by finding the suitable cast for every character of the film. This is the best way to tell a story that whisks us through the life of Savitri, from her childhood to rise to fame and the tumultuous relationship conundrums to double-crosses. By the time you learn that nothing is what it seems, and nobody can be trusted, we see the tragic demise of her at the age of 46.
Of the cast, Keerthy Suresh is a revelation and stands out as the legendary actor with her award-winning performance. She's got the body language and makes the character's emotions palpable. She makes you root for her as she accomplishes her goal with determination, refusing to give up, not bogged down by failures and hate being judged by others.
It's a phenomenal performance and the key to staying invested in the story when it swings between a boring and a predictable affair in the second hour. Dulquer Salmaan makes the best impression with his amazing performance and brings believability as Gemini Ganesan. The film also has a slew of striking cameos -- directors Srinivas Avasarala (LV Prasad), Krish (KV Reddy), Sandeep Reddy Vanga (Vedantam Raghavaiah) and Tharun Bhascker Dhassyam (Singeetam Srinivasa Rao), Mohan Babu (SV Ranga Rao), Prakash Raj (Chakrapani) and Naga Chaitanya (ANR).
Rajendra Prasad makes his presence felt. Vijay Deverakonda and Samantha provide wonderful support and does some of their best work. Dani Sanchez-Lopez's cinematography brings a scintillating mix of colour palette, while Mickey J Meyer’s songs and background score perfectly elevates the mood of the film.
This weekend, do yourself a favour and take this memory trip into the 60s to witness the sparkling performance of Keerthy Suresh and able storytelling of Nag Ashwin. Like Savitri, Mahanati will be remembered for many years to come.